Dutch football from Ajax to the Zuider Zee
Raindrops kept falling on his head, but that didn't mean that Steve McClaren's eyes were turning red. Instead he saw FC Twente reclaim top spot in the Eredivisie at the start of what’s he's dubbed their "week of truth".
It was a victory against much-vaunted opposition Feyenoord, on the back of a turbulent week, invigorated in time for Levante's visit before travelling to inform Vitesse, whose aspirations equal his own.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, Fri 5 Oct: Rutten raises revitalised Vitesse ever nearer to glory
"Crisis? What crisis?" asked McClaren, tongue in cheek, before injecting a dose of reality: 11 games, nine wins... what more can you can ask for? The answer is, apparently, much more. It’s indicative of modern football that "you’re only good as your last game" is often taken too literally.
Despite Twente's more than credible start their campaign, Thursday's KNVB Cup elimination to midtable second-tier side Den Bosch left a bitter aftertaste. A humbling turned into humiliation as, at the full-time whistle, Twente supporters gave voice to a rare expression of displeasure. McClaren had felt the first murmurings as the clock ticked down with Twente chasing the equaliser.
Supporters' agitation often translates onto the pitch and subsequently inhibits the very players they’re supposed to be encouraging. McClaren's relationship with Twente’s support has never been this strained – it was because of them that Enschede became his home from home – and so on the eve of the Feyenoord game he made an impassioned plea to the supporters.
“We need them,” McClaren admitted, while also describing his remorse for their cup exit. He also paid a visit to their fanatical ultras ‘Vak-P’: "The aim was to visit them after 10 games, and this was a perfect moment – they took it well."
Victory became imperative: a draw or even defeat wouldn’t be disastrous, but such is the current competitive landscape of Dutch top-flight football that every game tastes like a final. For the sides at the top, a one-game losing streak is a crisis. And when everyone is a threat, there are no meaningless games. It’s that psyche which has improved everyone, but particularly Twente: it's hard to imagine many other European leagues in which last season's sixth-placed team that suddenly be in command.
So only a win would suffice, but it wasn’t going to be easy. Feyenoord finished 10 points above Twente last season, runners-up only to Ajax. Ronald Koeman, who can smell a 'crisis' two towns over, was in confident mood and had every right to be. Though his team, like most in the Eredivisie, are on the youthful side, they're blessed with fortitude beyond their years as well as talent. Tonny Vilhena, seen as one of the jewels of the Varkenoord youth academy, made his second league start for the club; he's still 17.
The young Feyenoord side's exuberance – which leaves them prone to punishable mistakes – can worry Koeman, but he can only work with what he’s got and wouldn’t change it for anything. Their resilience shown in recent weeks – coming from two goals down to beat VVV Venlo and then recording a last-minute equaliser in the Klassieker against Ajax – reaffirmed his confidence while proving they're still far from the finished article.
For Twente, this was their third test this season against a direct championship rival. They failed the first, losing 1-0 at Ajax in late September, but passed the second with flying colours against AZ, winning 3-0 back in early October. And the three goalscorers from that day against Gertjan Verbeek's men once again answered the call of their manager against Feyenoord.
Dušan Tadić, even this early, is already staking a claim for 'player of the season'. The Serbian represents everything imperious about this fluid Twente outfit. Deployed out wide, Tadić jinked and weaved before cutting the ball into the path of Nacer Chadli, whose instinctive shot flew past a rooted Kostas Lamprou.
It was the start of what would turn out to be a miserable afternoon for the Greek goalkeeper. Lamprou has been in for the injured Erwin Mulder, who sustained a broken foot in September; Koeman though dejected, had every confidence in his back-up keeper, describing him from a technical point of view “a great goalkeeper.” But before the game was 20 minutes old, Lamprou had been embarrassed again as Feyenoord fell prey to something that all football fans can identify with: the returning ex.
On a weekend in which players lined up against former colleagues – Manchester United's Robin van Persie against Arsenal and Vitesse's Theo Janssen travelling to Ajax – it wasn't a surprise that Luc Castaignos dominated the headlines. Roy Makaay, whom the Twente striker trained under at Feyenoord, gave a scathing analysis of his development since leaving Rotterdam notably decision to move to Internazionale.
Still only 20 and back in the country after his lost year in Milan, Castaignos finished from a position he had no right to – another moment for Lamprou to forget. "He wasn't alert," Koeman lamented.
Come home: McClaren brings Castaignos out of exile
As is now customary when scoring against a previous employee, Castaignos eschewed celebration apart from forming a heart shape with his hands. "I have to thank Feyenoord very much," he said after the game, "but now I play for Twente."
And so, sadly for Feyenoord, does Dušan Tadić. As the rain lashed down in the second half, Tadić stood over a free-kick. It was at an angle demanding a cross, but given his confidence – and ability – the Serbian struck fierce and low. It should have been a routine save, but Lamprou let the ball squirm through him, giving the illusion he pushed it past the line. "It was a huge mistake from me," he ruefully admitted later.
Although fortunate, the strike was Tadić’s sixth of the season; coupled with his seventh assist earlier in the game, it added further strength to the argument that he’s becoming the league’s MVP, if he isn’t already.
It effectively ended the contest just as Feyenoord were creeping back into the game: had Koeman's side halved the deficit, it was game on. Instead, "we just lost," as Koeman's succinctly assessed it, ruing a "lack of conviction and sharpness in front of goal".
McClaren was understandably chirpier. "It was a big, tough match mentally and physically, given the build-up. But we fought and scored at the right times." There was also a word of praise for their "twelfth man". "The reaction from the fans after my call to stay together was great."
It was a win that kept them a point ahead of a resurgent PSV and "a good start to a tough week." The two meet in early December, before as McClaren was quick to stress "bigger tests" lie ahead in the league – starting with Vitesse this Sunday.
Never one to shirk from speaking his mind, PSV Eindhoven striker Dries Mertens described his side’s late
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