Across Europe, this has been the season of the two-horse race. In England, for example, the Manchester duo, United and City, lead by 15 and 14 points respectively over the chasing pack, while Italian giants AC Milan and Juventus, and Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich in Germany, have equally few worries about their lower-placed rivals.
Spain, of course, is now accustomed to the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly, with the increasing might of these colossal rivals meaning that Valencia, in third, currently find themselves 25 points off top spot. Yet although Greece, Scotland and plenty of others besides suffer a similar paucity of title candidates, there is one top flight that seems to be specialising in openness and unpredictability.
A quick look at its recent history will tell you that the Dutch Eredivisie has had four different champions in as many seasons, and this year could very well see a fifth added to that list. With April looming and the final straight ahead, just five points separate the top six, with every member of this closely-congested sextet in with a genuine chance. And the top four is tighter still, with current leaders AZ just a point ahead of second-placed Ajax, and two clear of Twente and PSV in joint-third.
As Steve McClaren, back in charge at Twente, recently told FIFA.com: “Nobody has broken away as yet. There are eight games to go in the league and any one of six teams can win it... We are in with a one-in-six chance.”
This, of course, hasn’t always been the case in the Eredivisie. Traditionally, the league was dominated by its ‘big three’ of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV, who between them won all but one of the titles on offer between 1965 and 2008. It was the 2008/09 season that signalled a turning point, with AZ finishing on top for just the second time in their history, ending a run of five successive championships at PSV – not to mention offering encouragement to others outside the usual triumvirate.
Twente, with McClaren at the helm, took up that challenge the very next season, winning their first-ever title amid scenes of justifiable euphoria in Enschede. They also came close to doubling that tally last year, this time under the stewardship of Michel Preud'homme, although Ajax ultimately pipped them in a dramatic final-day decider, with PSV following closely behind.
Yet if last season’s championship race was exciting, this current campaign could yet go down as the most thrilling and unpredictable the Eredivisie has ever seen. After all, as well as leaders AZ and last year’s trio of challengers, Feyenoord also remain in the running to end their 13-year title drought, with Heerenveen – level with the Rotterdammers on points – cast in the role of dark horses. Given the variety of candidates, it’s no wonder that McClaren believes the Dutch top flight has reached a new level of competitiveness.
“It’s got a lot tougher than when I was [last] here,” he reflected. “There was a breakaway of three teams – us, PSV and Ajax - but now the teams below have got stronger. AZ were always there, so they will always be strong with their belief and mentality. The likes of Feyenoord are coming back too, as are Heerenveen, who a few years ago were a big force. As the games whittle down and the pressure comes on, mentality will be key.”
Heerenveen, whose 92 years of history have yielded just one Dutch Cup, are very much the outsiders in the race, with even their coach, Ron Jans, saying that he “isn’t counting” on a title win. “Other teams are stronger,” he explained. “We lack the maturity to totally control a game, even if individually we have a lot of quality.” The most eye-catching manifestation of that quality is Bas Dost, the sought-after Heerenveen striker who currently leads the Eredivisie scoring chart with 22 goals.
Dost’s closest challenger, just two behind, is Twente’s Luuk de Jong, and he was among the players who helped secure a 2-1 win at De Graafschap on Wednesday to keep McClaren’s side in contention after two successive defeats. Leaders AZ, meanwhile, are not proving immune to the odd wobble themselves, with Sunday’s 0-0 draw at home to NAC offering hope to those trailing in their wake.
Coach Gertjan Verbeek insists that the Alkmaar outfit, having sold most of their 2009 title-winners, are "performing above expectations" simply by staying in the race. That, however, is unlikely to lessen his disappointment should one of his side’s quintet of challengers emerge triumphant from this exhilarating Dutch contest.