An elegant Finn spent the 1990s depressing PSV supporters. His name was Jari Litmanen. He inspired Ajax to four Eredivisie titles and UEFA Champions League glory during the decade. Now another Finnish name is consistently seizing headlines across the Netherlands, though this one belongs to a Swede – one who wears, to the delight of Eindhoven, their hallowed Rood-witten jersey.
Indeed, PSV’s position at the Eredivisie summit, above Ajax on goal difference following five rounds, is indebted to Ola Toivonen, who is the division’s six-goal joint-leading marksman alongside Luis Suarez. Central to the 24-year-old’s prolificacy is his capacity to score from inside the box, outside of it and, unsurprisingly given his 6ft-4ins frame, from headers. The deep-lying forward, who was coveted by Liverpool during the recent transfer window, is also an adept dribbler capable of creating chances for team-mates.
“I’m really enjoying myself,” Toivonen told FIFA.com. “We had a little slip-up at Den Haag (PSV relinquished the lead twice in a 2-2 draw), but other than that we’re playing well and winning games. We’ve got to keep working really hard all season though. The whole city wants the Eredivisie title back. The PSV fans are very demanding, so we need to win trophies for them.”
Another trophy PSV are aiming for this campaign is the UEFA Europa League. Fred Rutten’s side cruised past Sibir Novosibirsk to reach the group stage, where they will face Metalist Kharkiv, Debrecen and, in today’s curtain-raiser, Sampdoria.
“They’re a strong team,” Toivonen said of I Blucerchiati, who finished fourth in the Italian Serie A last term. “They have a lot of good players and one top player in Cassano. He’s not on the same level as [Lionel] Messi or [Cristiano] Ronaldo, but he’s in the next bracket of top players in Europe. But we’re going to attack them. We’re confident we’ll get the three points.”
Toivonen made his full international debut in January 2007, but was not afforded any playing time during Sweden’s unfruitful bid to qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. However, after excelling alongside current PSV colleague Marcus Berg during last year’s UEFA U-21 Championship – he hit three goals in four games, including a sublime free-kick against England - he was promoted into the senior side by new coach Erik Hamren.
The former Malmo attacker scored the opening goal in a 4-2 reverse of Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Rasunda stadium, where he was on target again in a 3-0 win over Scotland in August. Toivonen also helped Sweden begin UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying with home wins over Hungary and San Marino, 2-0 and 6-0 respectively, which have left them top of Group E, above the Netherlands on goal difference. Next up for the Scandinavians is an acid test at the Amsterdam Arena on 12 October.
“Playing against Holland will be a special occasion for me,” said Toivonen. “[Wesley] Sneijder is a fantastic player, one of the best in the world, and Van Bommel is another very important player. Holland are obviously one of the best sides in the world, but we’re confident and we’ll go there hoping to win. Our defence will be the key – we need to be very aggressive defensively.”
Another fixture will prove an emotional one for Toivonen: the one against Finland, from where his father emigrated to Sweden as a youngster, on 7 June 2011. “Their our neighbours and it’s also Swedish national day the day before, so it will be a wonderful atmosphere,” he explained.
After missing out on a place at South Africa 2010 – the first time they had failed to qualify for a major tournament in 12 years – Sweden are determined to line up at the next European finals. And with emerging talents such as Toivonen, Berg, Rasmus Elm, Pontus Wernbloom and Emir Bajrami, who are all based in the Dutch Eredivisie, there is genuine hope they can pip the Netherlands to Group E’s only automatic ticket. That transpiring is, nevertheless, likely to be dependant on the performance of an experienced figure.
“Zlatan [Ibrahimovic] is an amazing player,” enthused Toivonen. “He’s one of the top three strikers around, along with Messi and [Didier] Drogba. It’s an honour to play alongside him. Me and the other younger players learn so much from him at every training session, and I think this has shown in our results.
“However, we need to keep it going. Holland are a very strong side but our goal is to finish top.”