It’s tight at the top: the teams in best shape to win the Eredivisie

With four points separating the top four sides, the Eredivisie is once again one of the tightest and most competitive top flight leagues in Europe.

Last season, the Dutch league was the last surviving title race on the continent with four teams challenging for the championship in the dying weeks before Ajax’s short burst forward saw them win the league for the third successive time under Frank de Boer.

As the current campaign kicked off, it was just as exciting as the previous one ended. A combination of the competitiveness of the league as well as the inconsistency of the bigger sides in it saw it become bewilderingly clogged. After 11 weeks, only six points separated the top 13 sides of the 18 team league.

Eventually, though, Ajax, Vitesse, Twente and Feyenoord began to separate themselves from the remaining pack. It’s the Amsterdammers who ended 2013 top of the table, sitting just ahead of Vitesse on goal difference and three points in front of Twente and a further point above fierce rivals Feyenoord.

As the campaign kicked off, it was PSV who looked the brightest and most potent of sides. Fledgling coach Phillip Cocu and his company of thrilling young players won each of their first three league games, drew the next three and then trounced reigning champions Ajax 4-0. Since then, however,things went downhill and they embarked on a horrendous run in which they won just one of nine matches. The Eindhovenaren brought an upbeat end to the year having beaten Utrecht 5-1 and ADO 2-0, however they are still 11 points behind the leaders.

A fresh young team with a promising young manager, the early calls that they were destined to end Ajax’s reign of dominance in the first season were naïve, however no one expected such a poor start.

While PSV haven’t performed nearly as well as expected thus far, they should be more confident heading into the second half of the season. Bryan Ruiz has joined on loan from Fulham. The Costa Rican can play in a number of positions and was an absolute star in the Netherlands during his time at Twente.  Furthermore, Stijn Schaars is fit for the start of 2014, while Tim Matavz is almost fit again. Crucially, though, captain Georginio Wijnaldum is still out injured.

The winter break was seen as a chance for the team to regroup and come back stronger and the more optimistic PSV fans and Eredivisie viewers will be sure that they will.

Almost as big of a surprise as PSV’s decline is the progress of Vitesse. While recognised as a contender from the start of the season, they stuttered and stumbled in the early stages of the campaign as they acclimatised to life under new coach Peter Bosz. The Arnhem side won just two of their opening five games. However, mainly thanks to some magnificent performances from the electrifying Lucas Piazon and helped further by the goals of right-back Kelvin Leerdam, they managed to build some consistency and flew to the top of the table, capitalising on the inconsistencies of the other teams.

They approach the conclusion of this term raring to go and seemingly much stronger. They have acquired yet another player on loan from Chelsea. Bertrand Traore joined them shortly after the turn of the year and made an instant impact during the friendlies in their winter training camp. The 18-year-old has great close control and will certainly boost the midfield with his crisp short passing ability and his excellent through balls. They have also signed the versatile Rochdi Achenteh who can play at left-back, on the left wing or in the centre of midfield and has been a key player for PEC Zwolle for the last three years.

Where Vitesse lie weak, however, is up front. Mike Havenaar, with five goals and five assists, has done well since taking over the number nine role since Wilfried Bony’s departure. However, they are still decidedly thin in attack and require a stronger, more reliable striker. They were reportedly interested in taking Bas Dost on loan from Wolfsburg, which would have been wonderful for both the striker and the Dutch club, however the move hasn’t come to fruition.

Vitesse have been boosted by the introduction of Chelsea’s loanees such as Piazon, Patrick van Aanholt and Christian Atsu, but it’s the trusty youth system which allowed Ajax to compensate for their inadequacies. The Amsterdam side’s relatively bad start to the season was exacerbated by the departure of Christian Eriksen as they were left feeble, sluggish and arid. However, an injection of youth from the acclaimed academy De Toekomst in the shape of the impressive attacking midfielderDavy Klaassen as well as precocious centre-backs Joel Veltman and Stefano Denswil has seen them make a miraculous recovery.

The introduction of Klaassen to the first-team coincided with a reorganisation of the team. Daley Blind was moved to the centre of midfield, where he looks infinitely more comfortable and effective, while Siem de Jong was pushed forward to lead the attack as a more versatile striker in place of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, supported by Lasse Schone and Viktor Fischer.

Their season picked up with a home win over Celtic in the Champions League which sparked a ten game unbeaten run in all competitions which included six consecutive league wins, with the fatal 0-0 draw against Milan the only black mark on their record in that time.

That run allowed them to match Vitesse, who went on their own six game winning streak in the league, and eventually overtake them as Bosz’s men finished 2013 with a draw, while Ajax bounced back from 1-0 down to beat Roda thanks to goals form 17-year-old Jairo Riedewald in the 88th and 90th minutes.

Approaching their opening game of 2014 against PSV, they look in incredible shape. With the exception of Sigthorsson, De Boer starts the new year with a fully fit team and has even brought the likes of Riedewald and Ricardo Kishna into the team with Riechedly Bazoer being tipped to break into the senior squad in the near future.

Michel Jansen’s FC Twente are following closely behind the top two and they and Feyenoord remain close contenders for the title.

The Tukkers have a very young but dynamic and threatening team. Quincy Promes and Shadrach Eghhan have been promoted from the youth team and have made a fantastic impression on the senior squad. The former has been Twente’s best player so far this term, having scored eight goals and set up four in 15 appearances, while the latter hasn’t been too far behind him.

Promes is an incredibly fast and skilful winger who is a good crosser of the ball but also has excellent shooting ability. With him on one side and Dusan Tadic on the other and a creative midfield trio of Eghan, Felipe Gutierrez and Kyle Ebecilio, striker Luc Castaignos has a great supporting cast. The 21-year-old striker has played well so far this season having hit the net ten times in the league, while the way he links up with those around him has seen goals come from elsewhere in the team.

Twente also have the second strongest defence in the league as their back line is both strong and flexible. Roberto Rosales is a right-back who is creative going forward but also reliable defensively, while left-back options Robbert Schilder and Dico Koppers are both resilient defenders alongside the fantastic centre-back partnership of Andreas Bjelland and Rasmus Bengtsson.

While it may prove that Twente don’t have enough about them to go on and take the title this season when compared to the strength of Ajax and Vitesse, it looks likely that they won’t be far behind them come the end of the season.

That Feyenoord are only four points behind the leaders is simply a sign of their strength and is more reason to regret their terrible start to the season. Ronald Koeman’s side lost their opening three games of the season to Zwolle, Twente and Ajax, which even lead to some ridiculous speculation that he could be fired. Since those opening weeks though, Feyenoord have won all but five league games, losing two of those. Their strength lies in the lack of changes Koeman made to the squad over the summer.

The Pride of the South didn’t lose a single key player in the last transfer window and it doesn’t look very likely that they’ll see any depart this month either. Jordy Clasie, Stefan de Vrij, Jean-Paul Boetius, Tonny Vilhena and Bruno Martins Indi are all excellent young players and the fact they have remained together for another year has seen them develop together individually and as a team.

Their biggest weakness is that they are painstakingly one-dimensional. Their entire game plan revolves around centre forward and captain Graziano Pelle and the whole team is built to service him. When teams tightly mark Pelle and keep him out of the game, the team struggles immensely.

Feyenoord finished third last season and second the year before, so if they maintain the excellent form the showed in the league from matchday four, they’ll remain in contention.

The top four teams are all in great shape to go on and provide another exciting battle for the Eredivisie title, there is also a healthy battle going on for the Europa League playoff places (places 5 to 8).

Seven points separate fifth placed Heerenveen from Heracles in 13th, with the likes of Groningen, PSV, AZ, Utrecht, Go Ahead Eagles, Zwolle and NAC Breda in between all looking to secure the league’s final European spot.

The newly promoted and thin Go Ahead, NAC and Heracles look the most likely to fall out of the battle, but the remainder appear strong enough to give us a close battle until the final weeks of the season.

The Eredivisie may not be the best and strongest league in Europe, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting. We can bank on a few more 3-3 draws (strikingly common in Holland) and a huge number of goals, but we look certain to see another exciting climax to the Dutch top flight.

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