Eredivisie Preview: PSV – Ajax
Before the beginning of the season, most people were convinced that the Eredivisie would be a two-horse race. Ajax had kept their squad intact and added Bojan and Mike van der Hoorn while PSV, despite selling a lot of players, had made some smart signings to supplement a bright group of youngsters coming through. Six games into the season, neither side are yet to really impress with PEC Zwolle the early pacesetters even if they’re not seen as long-term title shots.
PSV started the season in fine form, racking up five consecutive wins (including 2 in CL preliminaries against Zulte Waregem) in a row and were top of the table after three games. PSV revamped their defence, bringing in rightback Arias and two centrebacks in the shape of Karim Rekik and Jeffrey Bruma. In midfield, Stijn Schaars was bought to succeed Strootman and with the acquisition of Adam Maher, PSV look stronger than they did before. The highlight of PSV’s fine start was a 5-0 victory against N.E.C., in which they averaged a pass completion rate of 93 percent and Zakaria Bakkali became the youngest scorer of a hat-trick in the Eredivisie at 17. Since then, things have gone a bit sour. AC Milan knocked PSV out of the Champions League and in the league, PSV drew three consecutive times. The nadir was the 0-2 loss against Ludogorets Razgrad in the Europa League. PSV are without t the record straight against Ajax, even though confidence isn’t at its highest.
Ajax haven’t exactly been firing on all cylinders either. They picked up the Johan Cruijff Schaal in the season opener against AZ (3-2 in ET) and won their first game in the league against Roda JC 3-0, but a loss against AZ a week later. They suffered another setback when ‘Captain Clutch’ Siem de Jong, the inspirational leader of the team had suffered a punctured lung and would be out for a month. Ajax recovered with a 2-1 against arch rivals Feyenoord, but then again dropped points away at Heerenveen (3-3). But a hesitant start was the least of Frank de Boer’s problems.
The vultures circled then pounced to deprive De Boer of two of his most prized assets in Toby Alderweireld and more significantly still, Christian Eriksen. The Danish playmaker (21) was a key architect of Ajax’s recent success. In his 113 league appearances, he scored 25 goals (13 with his right, 10 with his left, 2 with his foot) and was good for 44 assists. Outstanding numbers, especially for such a young player. Ajax had brought in Van der Hoorn (earlier this summer) and bought Lerin Duarte to compensate the loss, but it sets Ajax back a few years in development on those positions. A draw against FC Groningen (1-1) and a narrow win over Zwolle (2-1) meant Ajax recovered a bit. The first Champions League game, against Barcelona, was an unfair battle and in Camp Nou the Ajacieden lost 4-0.
With Jurgen Locadia and Tim Matavz, PSV have a pair of strikers, which should be the envy of their rivals but neither have found their shooting boots so far. Locadia has been favoured in most games by Philip Cocu, but has not recorded a shot on goal yet in the Eredivisie this term. Matavz meanwhile has not taken the chances he had so far and is yet to score in the Eredivisie. The main goalscoring threats for PSV have been the wingers in Memphis Depay and Zakkaria Bakkali, while from midfield captain Georginio Wijnaldum occasionally pops up with an important goal from midfield. He’s out tomorrow, making PSV’s task all the more difficult. There would no better time than tomorrow for Locadia or Matavz to rediscover their scoring touch. PSV have the attacking potential if not the consistency.
Ajax have their own problems. Icelandic striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is undoubtedly a fine striker, but due to injuries he hasn’t been able to hit the heights on a consistent basis. Danny Hoesen, let go by Fulham, doesn’t seem to be the answer either. The talent the Ajax faithful have their eyes on is Viktor Fischer. ‘The new Eriksen’ is everything but an Eriksen, but is an exciting prospect and a constant threat with his direct play. More suited for a role as a forward cutting in from the flanks, big things are expected from the young Dane. This hasn’t been his season so far however. Fischer has mainly stood out by looking frustrated. The new addition in attack, Bojan, is yet to score his first goal for Ajax and seems to struggle with finding his place in De Boer’s side but he showed signs of improvement against Barcelona.
PSV have a talented set of midfielders, but still struggle to find the right formation. With Wijnaldum out, it will be either Park or Maher occupying the number 10 role, while Stijn Schaars is sure of a place at the base of midfield alongside either Maher or Hiljemark. Schaars has been hugely impressive for PSV so far, leading Louis van Gaal to recall him to the Dutch squad. Maher however struggles with the expectations. Everything points at the ex-AZ man having a big future ahead of him and becoming one of the best players around, but he has struggled to adapt to life at a bigger club where the spotlight is greater and the pressure turned up another notch or three.
Ajax have a more accomplished trio in midfield. Christian Poulsen, who had a shocker in midweek, sits in front of the defence and two midfielders in front of him will have to do the creative work (Siem de Jong and one of Lerin Duarte, Thulani Serero and Lasse Schöne) but none of them are up to the mark of Eriksen. De Jong may not be your creative fulcrum per se but he can lead by example and score his fair share. Along with Matavz, he is the only player who has scored ten or more goals in the last four consecutive seasons, which is not a bad feat for a midfielder.
PSV have a very young defence while Ajax’s backline features a centreback who was playing in the second tier a mere month ago. Ajax have only kept a clean sheet once this season, so it’s fair to say Ajax’s defence is prone to mistakes or perhaps a lack of quality. PSV have had a kinder fixture list so far, but couldn’t keep a clean sheet in the tougher tests so far either. With Karim Rekik injured, Phillip Cocu will be forced to go for experience (Zanka) or youth (Hendrix), but neither are worthy of a place in Cocu’s strongest eleven.
At right back, Arias has been in and out of the team, swapping places with Bernet. Ajax meanwhile have a more established backline, with Daley Blind and Ricardo Van Rhijn as Dutch internationals and Niklas Moisander a Finnish international, but young Stefano Denswil is new at this level and the Ajax defence in general has been anything but impeccable so far.
Where it will be won and lost
Bakkali has been sensational for PSV so far and with Daley Blind as his direct opponent, he faces someone he can outpace with ease. His direct approach could prove vital to PSV’s chances in this game and Blind will be wary of leaving plenty of space behind him when he goes foward. It will be interesting to see how the midfield battle will pan out. Siem de Jong will be searching for space and has the composure of a poacher, Stijn Schaars will have to be sharp to track him. Meanwhile, Poulsen will be happy to see the energetic Wijnaldum out injured but if Maher is in form, he could give the veteran Dane the runaround. Fischer is not certain to play but he’s a man for the big occasion and Arias will have his work cut out.
The bigger the build-up, the more disappointing the game turns out to be. In stark contrast to last season, we’ve kept it rather quiet at BeNeFoot in hope of creating a counter-effect.
Prediction: PSV 3 – 2 Ajax