Ajax – Heerenveen: Two form teams clashing
By Babette van Haaren
The talks around the coffee machines in Holland aren’t about ‘if’ Ajax win the league but rather ‘when’ the Amsterdammers will be crowned champions. After their important 3-2 win over PSV last weekend, they are five points above Vitesse and a further point ahead of Feyenoord and PSV with only four games remaining.
Ajax coach Frank de Boer stressed the importance of Sunday’s victory over their nearest rivals for the title: “We deserved the win. We’ve dealt a big blow to PSV and received gifts from Vitesse and Feyenoord. It’s looking very good for Ajax.” But De Boer knows more so than anyone else that Ajax aren’t there yet. He doesn’t share the euphoric mood that lives amongst supporters. The former Netherlands captain wants his team to stay focused in their last four games and wants to get a 100% score out of it.
Sunday’s match winner Derk Boerrigter also remains cautious as the season approaches its end. “You’re only champions if you’re holding that trophy,” the winger insists. “It can still go wrong, but that may not happen of course.”
Heerenveen are the first opponents Ajax must face in their aim to secure the league title as the Friezen travel to Amsterdam on Friday. The reigning champions are still without goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, whose suspension following the red card in the recent game against Heracles was accepted by the club on Wednesday. It means Jasper Cillessen will be in goal for the Amsterdammers, but the 23-year-old shot stopper will be full of confidence after his flawless game against PSV.
Isaac Cuenca is likely to return to the Ajax squad. The Barcelona loanee has returned to full training, having recovered from a minor knee injury that sidelined him for a few weeks. The return of the Spanish winger means De Boer has a fully fit squad at his disposal.
Heerenveen, on the other hand, have struggled this season. After securing European football last season, topscorers Bas Dost and kings of the assist Ousama Assaidi and Luciano Narsingh left in the summer and coach Ron Jans was replaced by Marco van Basten. Other key players such as Viktor Elm, Daryl Janmaat and Michel Breuer also departed the Abe Lenstra Stadion. Heerenveen were forced to start all over again and the process took time and brought the club into the eye of a storm.
Despite cashing in on the transfer of Dost, Assaidi and Narsingh, Heerenveen didn’t have the opportunity to use those millions to build a new quality squad. The incoming money stream was desperately needed to deal with the past (in 2009 the club suffered a record loss of €15 million) and look to become financially healthy once again.
Of course, the task took unpopular measures of the new management. The size of the squad had to be shrunk down from 53 to 40, for both the first team and reserves to pave the way for youth players. Chairman Robert Veenstra had a similar task. To get out of the red numbers, he had to deliver a sad redundancy message to around 40 employees. The calculation was easily made. The money Heerenveen
could reinvest in replacements for the six players who left was exactly the amount the club cut back together in recent years.
From the start of the season, Heerenveen struggled. When the club came close to the relegation line, unrest broke out in Friesland. The man who once made Heerenveen big, Riemer van der Velde, openly criticised the policy and caused great discord in a club that has always been known for its regularity and tranquility. It led to huge media controversy surrounding Veenstra and a protest march from the fans.
After the winter break, the turmoil was put to bed. Joey van den Berg and Yassine El Ghanassy were recruited to strengthen the squad. The midfielder and winger proved to be the missing links in the Heerenveen side. Van Basten’s charges have now won six of their last seven games, including a win against Feyenoord. European football beckons again and, thanks to the eminent attackers Filip Djuricic and Alfred Finnbogasson, Heerenveen have a really good chance of getting it.
Finnbogasson has been nothing short of a revelation this season. The Icelandic striker has scored 23 goals so far in his first Eredivisie season. His brace on Sunday secured a victory over Willem II and saw the striker equal the record set by Petur Petursson with Feyenoord for most goals scored by an Icelandic player in a foreign top flight in a single season. Djuricic has always been named as an exceptional talent and is proving this season that he is ready to take the step abroad. Heerenveen will travel to Amsterdam with confidence but know Ajax are in form and don’t want to drop points in the battle for the league title.