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Steven Davies has a detailed look at the race for the 2016/17 Eredivisie title as he looks at the story so far and prospects of the 3 challengers.
As we enter the second half of the 2016/17 Eredivisie campaign three sides have emerged as genuine contenders for the title of landskampioen: Feyenoord, Ajax and PSV Eindhoven.
While the fact that it is once again the ‘big three’ who are fighting for supremacy at the top of the table in the Netherlands may be unsurprising to most what makes this year’s title tussle that bit more interesting is that it isn’t Ajax or PSV who hold the high ground going into the second half of the campaign but Feyenoord, whose long suffering fans have been forced to watch from afar as their rivals from Eindhoven and Amsterdam have, more often than not, alternated title successes, while their club has endured the most tumultuous period in its illustrious history in the years since Leo Beenhakker led the Rotterdammers to their last title success in 1999.
With seventeen matches played, Feyenoord lead the way atop the Eredivisie standings, five points clear of Ajax while PSV find themselves a further three points adrift following an erratic first half of the campaign for Phillip Cocu’s back-to-back reigning champions.
With the eighteenth round of action ominously getting underway on Friday 13th January here is a comprehensive preview of each contender’s title chances.
The story so far
The season began brightly for the back-to-back reigning champions as they saw off Cup winners, Feyenoord in the Johan Cruijff Schaal – the traditional curtain raiser to the campaign in the Netherlands, before winning four of their first five Eredivisie matches.
However, back-to-back one nil home defeats to Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League and then Feyenoord in the Eredivisie in mid-September set alarm bells ringing in Eindhoven and things would go rapidly downhill from there as Phillip Cocu’s men recorded just six wins in their next eighteen matches in all competitions – a horror run of results that included being eliminated from the KNVB Beker at the hands of newly promoted Sparta Rotterdam at the end of October and failure, not only to qualify for the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, but also to secure a berth in the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League following a dismal display in a must-win fixture at home to FC Rostov on 6th December.
Strengths and Weaknesses
While no longer able to rely on the dynamism of Memphis Depay, the defensive solidity of Jeffrey Bruma or the guile of Georginio Wijnaldum, Phillip Cocu has, on paper at least, the strongest squad of the three title contenders.
However, in reality, the quality of those at Cocu’s disposal has yet to really show itself on a consistent basis in 2016/17.
The addition of injury plagued Dutch international, Siem de Jong – who arrived on loan from Newcastle United at the end of August with a view to regaining both fitness and form in Eindhoven, has only just started to bear fruit with the former Ajax skipper scoring twice in his last two games prior to the winter break (including a goal against his former side in de Topper on 18th December).
Add to that the fact that his normally lethal goal scoring sibling, Luuk has found the net on just five occasions in all competitions thus far while injuries have limited PSV’s influential Mexican international, Andres Guardado to just sixteen appearances in all competitions this term in which the 30-year-old has contributed just three assists and no goals.
Yet, the first half of the campaign hasn’t been all doom and gloom for the men from Eindhoven: Uruguayan international, Gaston Pereiro has shouldered some of the goal scoring burden having found the back of the net on seven occasions in all competitions while also adding three assists, Davy Propper’s goal secured the Johan Cruijff Schaal for Phillip Cocu’s side at the end of July with the Dutch international adding a further five in all competitions prior to the winter break while new signing, Bart Ramselaar has added three goals and a pair of assists since his early season switch from FC Utrecht.
While the reigning champions have been somewhat impotent in front of goal this season – scoring just 25 times in 17 outings in the league, they do boast the meanest defence in the Eredivisie – having conceded just eight times in the process.
With the return of Marco van Ginkel on loan from Chelsea, Phillip Cocu will feel confident that his side can rediscover the sort of consistency and goal scoring punch that eluded them in the first half of the campaign.
The injury plagued 24-year-old was set to return to Eindhoven on loan once more in the summer after having played an instrumental role in securing an unlikely title triumph on the final day of the season with Phillip Cocu’s side last season – scoring eight goals in thirteen Eredivisie matches before going down with a knee injury that kept the Dutch international side lined in West London until recently.
Similarly, if Siem de Jong can rediscover the sort of form that helped fire Ajax to four successive titles between 2010 and 2014, Luuk de Jong finds his goal scoring boots and Andres Guardado steers clear of injury, the reigning champions will be a formidable prospect over the course of the second half of the campaign.
In addition, the Eindhoven based outfit are not anticipating the loss of any of their key men save Luciano Narsingh – whose proposed move to Swansea City appears to be almost a done deal and while the likely departures of Florian Jozefzoon and Danish defender, Simon Poulsen will reduce Phillip Cocu’s options to a degree, neither have played a substantial role over the course of the first half of the campaign.
Perhaps the greatest advantage that the defending champions possess however is that they have the luxury of knowing that they are guaranteed to play the fewest games of the three title aspirants over the course of the second half of the campaign – having already been eliminated from both the KNVB Beker and the UEFA Champions League.
In contrast, title rivals Feyenoord face Vitesse Arnhem in the quarter finals of the KNVB Beker at the end of January while Ajax face the prospect of a two-legged tie with Legia Warsaw in the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League in mid-February. With both sides in with a good shout of progressing in their respective competitions, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the league performances of both could suffer either side of their mid-week cup commitments and afford Phillip Cocu’s men a chance to claw back some ground in the title race.
On paper, PSV look incredibly strong but whether that will translate onto the field of play in 2017 remains to be seen.
Eight points is a metaphorical mountain to climb in the Eredivisie – a league where it is not uncommon for sides to go long periods without suffering defeat and, despite knowing that they will play the fewest games of the three title aspirants over the course of the second half of the campaign, the title chances of Phillip Cocu’s side will depend as much on the form of those ahead of them in the standings as on PSV themselves.
The story so far
Having succeeded Frank de Boer, 2016/17 began horrendously for new Ajax coach, Peter Bosz – de Godenzonen recording just two victories in their opening seven outings in all competitions culminating in a humiliating trouncing at the hands of FC Rostov in the 2nd leg of the playoff round in qualifying for the UEFA Champions League at the end of August.
From there however, Bosz would postpone his visit to the Job Centre to guide the Amsterdam giants on a remarkable run of twenty matches without defeat in all competitions which included securing progression into the last 32 of the UEFA Europa League – the former four-time European Champions going through all six of their fixtures in Group G undefeated.
However, as the winter break drew near the wheels fell off somewhat with Ajax losing their unbeaten run in the dying moments in Enschede on the 11th December and tumbling out of the KNVB Beker at the hands of second tier outfit, Cambuur four days later before being held at home by PSV in de Topper to leave the most successful club in the Netherlands five points adrift of league leaders, Feyenoord with seventeen matches played.
Strengths and Weaknesses
Having lost Polish goal machine, Arkadiusz Milik to Napoli at the start of August, much of the speculation in Amsterdam revolved around the question of finding the back of the net. To solve this conundrum Bosz turned to a familiar face – drafting in Burkina Faso international, Bertrand Traore on loan from Chelsea – a player who the newly installed Ajax coach knew well from a fruitful loan spell at Bosz’s former club, Vitesse Arnhem.
However, it soon became apparent that Traore was not the answer that Bosz was looking for as the 21-year-old struggled to adapt to playing a central role in the attacking three and soon found himself shifted out to the right in favour of 19-year-old, Danish wonderkid, Kasper Dolberg who drew many admiring glances from Europe’s biggest clubs as he notched eleven goals and three assists in all competitions over the course of the first half of the campaign.
If the first half of the campaign was one of emergence for one young Dane it can also be seen as one of renaissance for an older one – the previously forgotten Lasse Schone who notched twenty appearances and chimed in with three goals and four assists in all competitions.
Meanwhile, it would be remiss to say that Daley Sinkgraven’s startling transformation (in Peter Bosz’s eyes at least) into a left back could similarly be labelled a renaissance – the 21-year-old’s career had previously failed to take off under Frank de Boer following a big money switch from Heerenveen in January 2015 but, like Schone, Sinkgraven has found favour under Bosz – making 18 appearances in all competitions.
Unlike their counterparts in Eindhoven, goal scoring has not been a problem for Peter Bosz’s side who hit the back of the net 35 times in 17 Eredivisie matches over the course of the first half of the campaign. Indeed, Bosz’s new look Ajax boast goal scoring threats all over the park, not least Ajax skipper, Davy Klaassen – the Dutch international notching 13 goals in 25 appearances in all competitions which included a remarkable run of eight goals in his first nine outings of the season.
Another of the burning questions surrounding the Amsterdam giants following Bosz’s appointment in the summer revolved around the departure of Jasper Cillessen whose eventual departure for Barcelona at the end of August meant that the Ajax coach had little choice but to blood inexperienced 20-year-old stopper, Andre Onana in a shock home defeat at the hands of Willem II at the Amsterdam ArenA on the 20th August.
However, despite the arrival of Dutch international ‘keeper, Tim Krul on loan from Newcastle United, the young Cameroon international has grown noticeably in confidence as the weeks have passed leaving Bosz with a tough decision to make when Krul eventually regains full fitness following his cruciate knee ligament injury.
While goals have been in strong supply in Amsterdam, their defence, in spite of the previously noted departure of Cillessen, has also performed admirably with their rear guard breached on just 13 occasions in 17 Eredivisie matches over the course of the first half of the campaign.
Another new face to have emerged into the first team picture at the Amsterdam ArenA this term has been young Colombian centre half, Davinson Sanchez who, like Dolberg, has drawn amorous glances from the continent’s biggest clubs who have noted the 20-year-old’s rapid development in his 21 outings in all competitions over the course of the first half of the season.
This, of course, all makes for positive reading, however, the first half of the campaign has not been without its drama at the Amsterdam ArenA as the new Ajax coach has mercilessly wielded the axe with an entire generation of young stars finding themselves out of favour.
Over the summer of 2016, Riechedly Bazoer was touted as one of the brightest talents, not only in the Netherlands, but in world football. Now, as we ring in 2017 the 20-year-old starlet has opted to join Wolfsburg after falling out of favour under Bosz having appeared on just ten occasions in all competitions this season.
Another to run afoul of the new boss was Anwar El Ghazi, who, following an impressive opening to the campaign, found himself demoted to the reserves after a war of words with Bosz during a training session in late October while Serbian international, Nemanja Gudelj has found himself effectively frozen out at the Amsterdam ArenA after refusing to be named as a substitute in early November.
Daley Sinkgraven’s installation at left back under Bosz has also led to Mitchell Dijks falling out of the first team picture, while Joel Veltman’s monopoly of the right back position and the emergence of 17-year-old, Matthijs de Ligt could also spell the end of Kenny Tete’s career in Amsterdam.
Perhaps the most surprising omission has been that of 20-year-old, Dutch international, Jairo Riedewald who has been forced to look on while not only the impressive Sanchez but the previously underutilised, Nick Viergever have made up the centre of the Ajax rear guard for much of the first half of the campaign.
Ajax are one of only two Dutch sides to have progressed into the latter stages of European club competition and, having been drawn against Polish outfit, Legia Warsaw will fancy their chances of progressing further in the UEFA Europa League.
Despite Feyenoord still being involved in the KNVB Beker, it must be said that two-legged commitments bookended by crucial Eredivisie matches could well see de Godenzonen’s league form suffer following Thursday night excursions all over the continent.
Add to this the prospect of losing not only Bazoer but also Gudelj, El Ghazi and even Schone (whose contract expires in the summer) during the January transfer window and you begin to worry about the depth of Peter Bosz’s squad and its ability to replicate the sort of run of form that effectively saved Bosz’s job and thrust the Amsterdam giants back into the title picture after a disastrous opening to the campaign.
Morale will also be a key factor. If some of the malcontents in Bosz’s squad fail to secure moves away from the club in January, how will this affect the atmosphere at the club as the season enters its most crucial phase and every game becomes a must-win affair?
Five points is not an insurmountable lead to overcome, especially when you consider that the second instalment of De Klassieker takes place at the Amsterdam ArenA on 2nd April.
However, with the prospect of playing more matches that either PSV or Feyenoord over the second half of the campaign due to their continued involvement in European competition it is likely, given the sort of travelling and turnaround of matches involved, that Ajax will struggle to replicate the sort of run of form that saw them emerge as Feyenoord’s main rivals for the title over the course of the first half of the season.
The story so far
If the last seventeen years have been something like a waking nightmare for Feyenoord and their long-suffering fans then the first half of the 2016/17 campaign has been like a dream come true.
Despite having come up short to reigning champions, PSV Eindhoven in the curtain raising Johan Cruijff Schaal, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men began the campaign with a run of nine straight victories in all competitions, including a remarkable victory over Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League in mid-September, leading many to tout the sleeping giant of Rotterdam as a genuine title contender for the first time in more than a decade.
However, few of a Feyenoord persuasion were getting quite so carried away, having witnessed their beloved club implode on numerous occasions since they were last crowned landskampioen in 1999 under the stewardship of Leo Beenhakker.
However, when a first defeat of the season did eventually arrive – at the hands of Dick Advocaat’s Fenerbahce in the UEFA Europa League at the end of September, the anticipated capitulation failed to materialise as Feyenoord won their next three in succession in all competitions and wouldn’t taste defeat again until a shock loss at De Adelaarshorst at the hands of newly promoted Go Ahead Eagles on 6th November – Feyenoord’s first defeat in the Eredivisie since coming up short against PEC Zwolle on Valentine’s Day.
With their incredible 22-match unbeaten run in the league broken at the hands of the least likely of opposition, questions were once more asked of the title credentials of Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side with the memory of the seven straight league defeats that effectively derailed the club’s title charge either side of the winter break last season still fresh in the memory.
Ultimately, the defeat would prove to be a temporary setback as the Rotterdam giants secured five wins from their next eight in all competitions to secure both the title of ‘winter champions’ and progression into the quarter finals of the KNVB Beker. Feyenoord’s only two reversals would come in the UEFA Europa League at the hands of both Manchester United and Fenerbahce – the latter of which saw the club miss out on a place in the last 32 of the competition.
Strengths and Weaknesses
It is interesting to note that Feyenoord have succeeded over the first half to the season in spite of the side’s perceived weaknesses.
The club was forced to scramble around when first choice ‘keeper, Kenneth Vermeer ruptured his Achilles tendon over the summer which side-lined the Dutch international for the rest of the year and, with back-up stopper, Warner Hahn already on the shelf with a long term injury, the club drafted in perennial reserve, Brad Jones – who had previously stepped in at NEC Nijmegen towards the end of last season to solve their own goalkeeping crisis, as a stop-gap replacement.
Yet, despite the nature of his arrival, the 34-year-old Australian has scarcely missed a beat behind the Feyenoord back four – conceding just 11 goals in 16 league matches this term while also keeping eight clean sheets.
These impressive statistics reflect positively not only on the experienced Australian but on a back line that has also been without the services of Sven van Beek after the 22-year-old was also side-lined with a foot injury prior to the start of the season leaving Eric Botteghin and Jan-Arie van der Heijden the opportunity to develop an effective central defensive partnership while 21-year-old, Rick Karsdorp has continued to make a name for himself with his marauding runs from right back drawing the attention of Manchester United amongst others.
Dutch international, Terence Kongolo now seems settled at left back – a position he was not all that comfortable with when van Bronckhorst opted to split up the 22-year-old’s central defensive pairing with van Beek – which been favoured by predecessors Fred Rutten and Ronald Koeman, at the beginning of last season. A bonus has also been the re-emergence of 26-year-old left back, Miquel Nelom who has filled in admirably when injury forced Kongolo out of the side towards the end of the year.
Feyenoord’s main strength though, lies in its fluid midfield three and attacking trio – each of which seem capable of posing a threat to the opposition in the final third which goes some way to explaining the fact that the current league leaders have found the net a remarkable 47 times in their 17 Eredivisie outings thus far this season.
The combative Karim El Ahmadi allows the flair and skill of Tonny Vilhena the opportunity to thrive and influence proceedings more effectively while 36-year-old skipper, Dirk Kuyt has taken to his deeper role in the same way he has to every other positional change he has been asked to make throughout his storied career – with nothing less than 100% commitment.
Ahead of them, new signing, Nicolai Jorgensen has finally filled the goal-scoring void vacated by Graziano Pelle’s departure to Southampton in July 2014 – the Danish marksman hitting the back of the net 16 times in all competitions since his summer switch from F.C. København.
Giovanni van Bronckhorst has looked to blend youth with experience while offering a number of faltering careers an opportunity to flourish. Dutch international, Eljero Elia has continued to show signs of becoming the player that earned big money moves to the likes of Hamburger SV, Juventus and Werder Bremen, while the season-long loan signing of Watford’s Steven Berghuis could potentially pay dividends with the 25-year-old having already netted on 5 occasions in all competitions as he looks to rebuild a career that has stalled since his departure from AZ Alkmaar in July 2015.
However, the most remarkable re-emergence of all has been that of Jens Toornstra who had, following the arrival of Berghuis, appeared surplus to requirements at De Kuip before contributing 5 goals and 7 assists over the course of the first half of the campaign to keep the Watford loanee rooted to the bench.
Add to that the fact that van Bronckhorst is blessed with a deep squad that allows him to call upon the services of the likes of Bilal Basacikoglu, Renato Tapia, Michiel Kramer, Simon Gustafson and Marko Vejinovic when injuries and suspensions inevitably strike down the track and it becomes apparent that Feyenoord are well equipped for the rigours of a genuine title challenge over the course of the second half of the season.
As ‘winter champions’, Feyenoord enter the second half of the campaign with the ball in their court. While a five point lead is not insurmountable it does mean that Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s men have their destiny in their own hands.
While PSV have no other distractions they are eight points adrift of the Rotterdam giants in third and would require a particularly poor run of form from both Ajax and Feyenoord to allow them back into the title picture while a victory over Feyenoord at De Kuip on 26th February wouldn’t go amiss either.
Ajax’s European commitments will likely see their title challenge come unstuck towards the end of February and if Feyenoord can balance their KNVB Beker commitments effectively they should be able to capitalise on any points dropped by Peter Bosz’s side meaning that the outcome of the second instalment of De Klassieker at the Amsterdam ArenA on 2nd April will likely decide where the title will reside come the end of the season.