Dutc h fans are growing accustomed to dramatic denouements in the Eredivisie. For the second year running PSV Eindhoven showed they could cope with the pressure on the big occasion, winning away at Vitesse Arnhem to deny Ajax Amsterdam the domestic crown they so desperately crave.In doing so PSV racked up their fourth consecutive league title, with Ajax having to settle for second despite Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's rich harvest of goals. Finishing a creditable third were Breda, while at the other end of the table Excelsior Rotterdam dropped down to the First Division. The play-offs will now decide who joins them and who goes where in Europe.
Twelve months ago there were three sides still in the hunt for the championship on the final day of the season. Louis van Gaal's AZ Alkmaar held all the aces, with PSV and Ajax tucked in just behind them. In the end, however, it was Ronald Koeman's men who dipped for the line first to complete a hat-trick of title wins.
The former Barcelona defender was then spirited away by Valencia in October, with striker Arouna Kone also decamping to Spain to join Sevilla. Another key figure to leave was defensive rock Alex and talismanic skipper Phillip Cocu completed the exodus when he decided to retire. Even so, few expected PSV to struggle in their absence.
After taking over in January, Sef Vergoossen made the most of the solid foundations left by Koeman to build a more attacking side. New recruits Danko Lazovic and Danny Koevermans stood tall when their side needed them most, and led by Timmy Simons, the gifted Jefferson Farfan, rising star Ibrahim Afellay and flamboyant shotstopper Gomes, PSV had more than enough resources to hang on to their crown for another year. That said, Vergoossen, who now hands over the reins to Huub Stevens, deserves credit for making light of the changes in personnel and cooking up with a winning blend so quickly.
In landing their 21st title, PSV have become the
first team to win the Dutch league four years on the bounce on two
separate occasions, their first four-in-a-row coming in
1986-89. Less impressively, their tally of 72 points was
the lowest total amassed by a championship-winning side since the
introduction of three points for a win. Even so, that particular
stat failed to dampen celebrations down in North Brabant.So just what is PSV's recipe for success? One
man with a better insight than most is former star Boudewijn
Zenden, now with Olympique Marseille. "It's an extremely
professional club and they rarely make bad signings," as the
one-time Dutch international recently explained to FIFA.com.
"They tend to pick up good foreigners, particularly unknown
Pressure is exactly what Ajax have been feeling in recent seasons as they attempt to reclaim the title from their arch-enemies. Victory in the season-opening Super Cup seemed to augur well for Henk ten Cate's charges, but the air of optimism soon evaporated when Wesley Sneijder packed his bags for Real Madrid. Elimination from the UEFA Champions League quickly followed, with morale taking a further blow when the coach jumped ship to Chelsea.New man at the helm Adrie Koster quickly restored order but the Amsterdam giants were undone by inconsistency as they came up short in their title bid. Yet with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar topping the scoring charts with 33 goals, summer signing Luis Suarez chipping in with 14 assists and Kenneth Perez back on board, the men in red and white ooze class. And with an average of 49,000 diehards cheering them on week in, week out at the ArenA, Ajax also boast the biggest following in the land.
Koster's side will now play off for the second Champions League spot against two of their opponents from last season: Twente Enschede, spearheaded by 22-goal Blaise Nkufo, the second-highest scorer in the league; and Heerenveen, who finished fifth despite waving goodbye to Afonso Alves in the winter. The surprise members of the play-off quartet are NAC Breda, who took third spot, the position occupied by AZ last season. The Alkmaar outfit could only finish a disappointing 11th this time round, however.
"We lost our two star strikers and we haven't been able to replace them," Van Gaal told FIFA.com last autumn. "We are playing well but we're not finding the back of the net." After initially announcing his departure, the ex-Ajax supremo had second thoughts and will be back in the AZ hotseat again next season.
Feyenoord flop, Excelsior drop
One man moving on to pastures new is Bert van Marwijk, who is vacating the Feyenoord post to take over as Netherlands coach from Marco van Basten, with the former Milan legend sidling into the Ajax job. The big spenders from Rotterdam last tasted league success in 1999 and were hoping for big things this season with the arrival of Roy Makaay and Giovanni van Bronckhorst. But after scoring only 13 goals, Makaay has proved something of a disappointment and Feyenoord will have to content themselves with a battle for a UEFA Intertoto Cup slot with Utrecht, Groningen and Roda.
Down at the basement Excelsior Rotterdam were relegated for the sixth time in their history, equalling Den Bosch's inglorious tally. Newly promoted Volendam still hold the record, though, with no fewer than eight relegations to their name. De Graafschap and VVV Venlo will play off to decide who joins Excelsior in the second flight next season.
And just time for one final statistic. Eredivisie attendance records were broken for the third successive season, with league games attracting an average crowd of 18,763, which just goes to show that Dutch football seems to be in rude health.