Ajax to test Feyenoord’s mettle in top of table clash

Just 10 weeks into the season, the Eredivisie sees its second headline, top of the table clash of the season on Sunday. As Feyenoord welcome Ajax to De Kuip a month after the former beat reigning champions PSV, the Rotterdam side are looking to make a statement and claim another big scalp to maintain their historic start.

Feyenoord are top of the table with nine wins from nine, having scored 25 goals – the most in the league, and conceded three – the least. A 5-0 away thrashing of Groningen in their opening game sent them flying, but their wins varied from scrappy and unconvincing to outright hammerings. Along the way, they picked up three points against Manchester United in the Europa League just a few days before beating PSV 1-0 in Eindhoven.

It is no surprise then that, with Giovanni van Bronckhorst at the helm and Dirk Kuyt leading on the pitch, many Rotterdam natives are starting to believe a title charge has begun. It is a belief and a dream that the Feyenoord fans are more susceptible to falling into than most. Last season’s KNVB Beker is their first since they lifted the 2002 UEFA Cup. While no Dutch team has won a European title since, that PSV and Ajax have enjoyed spells of Eredivisie dominance since Feyenoord interrupted them in 1999 does not sit right with their supporters. While those two battled for glory, Feyenoord declined to incredible depths, coming close to bankruptcy.

Fighting their way back up to become the third force in Dutch football once again, the iconic club are desperate to disrupt the duopoly. In recent years, they have shown promise, finishing second in 2012 and 2014, but they have not been able to stand up to the challenge.

And despite their results, there is more evidence to suggest the excited southerners are setting themselves up for a fall than there is to say they will be champions come 14 May.

They scrambled to a win against Heracles, were lucky to beat PSV with a late goal and were scrappy against NEC on Sunday. Winning when playing badly is a mark of champions, the idiom goes, but Feyenoord have many flaws to be exposed.

It says a great deal about the shape of the side that against NEC, one of the Eredivisie’s least potent attacks and dense defences, they were forced to wait until the 92nd minute to steal the three points.

The Nijmegen side sat deep and hardly made it beyond their own half other than to, with a slice of luck, take the lead. Feyenoord had free run of the field from then on but lacked a clinical touch, focusing heavily on attacking through the wings despite the ample space available in the middle.

While the game exposed the infirmity of their attacking focus, it was another example of one of their greatest strengths.

The fighting spirit shared by Feyenoord and Het Legioen (their fans) is palpable in De Kuip and it does seem to follow them beyond Rotterdam too. Commitment, hard work and ‘wanting it more’ are vague themes that are hard to describe and of questionable validity. But if one wishes to find an example of where those very aspects seem undeniably evident and effective, it is in the beautiful stadium and that club which claims to be the pride of the south.

Their never say die attitude and seemingly instinctive need to fight until the end seemed evident in both goals in Sunday’s 2-1 win.

There is much to like about Feyenoord’s team. In Nicolai Jorgensen they have found a player capable of filling the void left by Graziano Pelle. The 25-year-old is not cutting the same, handsome gladiator figure as Pelle, but certainly proving as effective while adding a bit more mobility, having scored nine goals in 14 appearances and made five assists. In Rick Karsdorp they have the likely first-choice right-back for the national team, while Terence Kongolo, a centre-back often used at left-back, is destined to reach great heights. Tonny Vilhena, who has a fan in Ronald Koeman, has his development back on track after a rough spell, while Bilal Basacikoglu is an exciting young winger.

With Karim El Ahmadi keeping things ticking over in midfield and Brad Jones the steady safe hands at the back there is a healthy mix to the team. The experience and leadership on the field comes mainly from Kuyt, but the former Liverpool player has been more of a hindrance this term. He does not fit the profile of an attacking midfielder, where he plays this season, and is not suitable to take up last season’s role on the right wing. Still, he has only been absent from the starting XI twice this term.

Feyenoord’s issues go beyond Kuyt, of course. With a centre-back pairing in Jan-Arie van der Heijden and Eric Botteghin, and a midfield which offers little in the way of protection, Feyenoord have their vulnerabilities.

Their overreliance on the wings only hinders them further. Only PSV have made more crosses than Van Bronckhorst’s men this season, and the champions are suffering as a result.

It seems just a matter of time before Feyenoord are exposed and caught up. Ajax have a great chance to do just that this Sunday.

Sitting five points behind their rivals after dropping points due to early wobbles in Peter Bosz’s reign, the Amsterdam side have hit incredible form and are more threatening than they have been for three years.

The signing of Hakim Ziyech, the most talented player in the league, from FC Twente is already paying off. The Ajax attack is better connected with a player of such instinct, timing, incisiveness and judgement on the ball. He already has three goals and seven assists in all competitions in the red and white.

But Ajax, too, are still trying to find the right balance in midfield – an area in which they have a wealth of mostly youthful and developing players. The overcrowding and ample talent has seen Bosz move central midfielder Daley Sinkgraven to a left full-back, keeping out the likes of Riechedly Bazoer, Donny van de Beek and Nemanja Gudelj, while centre-back turned No.6 Jairo Riedewald has also had to settle for a place on the bench in recent weeks. Furthermore, Lasse Schone, 30, has enjoyed a kind of rebirth in the starting XI, filling in at the base of midfield and adding to the team again after being kept out by previous coach Frank de Boer.

Things for Ajax are clicking at the right moment. The loan of Bertrand Traore is now starting to pay off following his move from central striker to the right wing, opposite the lithe, tricky Amin Younes, giving more suitable support to the rising star striker in Kasper Dolberg.

With Ziyech bringing it altogether and engineering Ajax’s attacks alongside captain Davy Klaassen, who somehow finds a way to be effective even in his least impressive displays, Ajax have a kind of intricacy and inspiration they have been lacking for the last three years.

Thursday’s 2-2 draw against Celta in the Europa League ended Ajax’s nine-game winning streak, and they look all the more imposing and assured in each game.

After their Johan Cruijff Schaal (Dutch Super Cup) defeat to PSV before the start of the league campaign, a loss to Fenerbahce remains Feyenoord’s only blip in 2015-16, but they do seem to be more suspect than their rivals in many ways.

The scene is set for Ajax to burst their fierce enemies’ bubble and capitalise on theirs and PSV’s flaws in order to show they are ready to retake the league title. They can match them in footballing ability and organisation. If they can overcome the power of the Feyenoord mentality and Het Legioen, it’s hard to see them being stopped. Should they fail, though, and with the gap between the top-three and the rest bigger than it has been for some time, a win could see Feyenoord mount a title challenge more serious than they have mounted this century.

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