A current champion fending off the challenge of an old one
It has been a truly remarkable season in the Dutch Eredivisie. Heading into the final five weeks of the campaign, we see four teams still in contention to be crowned champions. This Sunday could see the battle for pole-position tighten up or else have one team fall further behind as first and second go head-to-head. Frank de Boer’s Ajax currently sit three points ahead of this weekend’s opponents PSV and are looking to put one hand on the title with a win on Sunday. However, Dick Advocaat’s side will be desperate to reinstate their status as title contenders and pull themselves level with the Amsterdam club with a home win. PSV – Ajax is a fixture with a lot of history but there have been very few matches played between the two with such massive implications as the one which takes place in the Philips Stadion this Sunday. Two Dutch and European giants with two renowned and well respected coaches, this match will go a long way to enhancing the reputation of either De Boer or Advocaat as they both look to boost their side’s hopes of glory. They both know what it’s like to win a trophy.
De Boer is on course to become only the third Ajax coach to retain three successive Eredivisie titles. A win on Sunday will see the capital club open up a six point lead over PSV while keeping fellow contenders Vitesse and Feyenoord at a manageable distance of three and four points respectively, assuming they each win this weekend’s fixtures. With four winnable games following the clash and a real knack for finishing the season in top gear, three points on Sunday will increase the likelihood of the former Ajax and Barcelona star joining Rinus Michels and Louis van Gaal in lifting that third consecutive championship.
While De Boer insisted in his press conference that Ajax “will do anything to be crowned champions for the third time [in a row]”, his counterpart Advocaat has as much desire to ensure his side pull themselves level with their fierce rivals this weekend and drive on to lift the title themselves. The former Netherlands and Rangers coach joined the Eindhoven club for his second spell following a very disappointing Euro 2012 campaign with Russia with the sole aim of winning the league. The 65-year-old won the Eredivisie once in his three and a half years as head coach of the Red & White Army in the mid-1990s and was recruited this summer, along with midfielder Mark van Bommel, also returning for a second spell with the club following trophy-laden periods with Barcelona, Bayern Munich and AC Milan, to bring domestic glory back to Eindhoven for the first time in five years. Advocaat is contracted until 2014 but he has insisted he will leave this summer as “a failure” should his side be placed anywhere other than first come the 12th of May, meaning the possibility of seeing him in the dugout of the Philips Stadion next season could be all but completely eradicated come the final whistle on Sunday.
However, Eindhoven natives have much reason to be hopeful as they have had the joy of watching Advocaat turn PSV into a team of great attacking potency and one which is very much capable of winning the league. For a significant part of this campaign, the Eindhoven side have been in free-scoring form, having hit the back of the net 88 times in the Dutch top flight with goals coming from all over the park. Attacking midfielder Giorginio Wijnaldum has been in fantastic form throughout the campaign, with 14 goals and five assists he is, surprisingly, the side’s top goalscorer. Dries Mertens is also enjoying a wonderful season, the Belgian winger has netted 13 goals so far and set up a remarkable 14. Meanwhile, Tim Matavz, Jeremain Lens and Ola Toivonen have all played a massive part in their side’s season, intermittently chipping in with goals while Van Bommel and Kevin Strootman have weighed in with a combined nine goals and 12 assists from the centre of midfield. Also, the acquisition of winger Luciano Narsingh from Heerenveen for €4 million was one the club couldn’t pass up. The Netherlands international got his PSV career off to a great start, with five goals and nine assists in the first-half of the season before a knee injury ruled him out for the remainder of term.
Despite a bright start, PSV’s form has dipped significantly since the turn of the year. Three of their seven league defeats and two of their three draws have come in the second-half of the season. In that period, they have managed to score more than two goals in one game on just two occasions, whereas there were 12 games before the winter break in which they fired more than two past their opponents and eight of those were with winning margins of four or more. Under Advocaat, PSV’s form against their fellow title contenders has been relatively poor. One win over Feyenoord and a 2-2 draw with Vitesse are the only positives from the five matches they have played against the other top four sides. On the other hand, Ajax have collected a total of seven points against the three sides currently trailing them, making that 3-1 win over PSV (and Lens’ shot which rolled just wide at 1-1 only minutes before Viktor Fischer squared to Danny Hoesen to give Ajax the lead) significantly more crucial as we approach this match.
PSV’s season has been in stark contrast to that of Ajax. While the club from the south of Netherlands enjoyed a prosperous opening half of the season followed by a period of startling inconsistency after the New Year, Ajax stuttered their way through the tail end of 2012 but have since hit top gear. De Boer has trained his team to ensure they maintain the distance before fitness and compatibility on the field reaches its peak. In each of the three seasons under De Boer, Ajax have won 34 of the 44 games they have played between January and the final game of the season, losing five and drawing five. One problem De Boer has had to deal with throughout each of the past two years is injuries. This season alone, striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and winger Ryan Babel have been limited to just ten and 11 Eredivisie appearances respectively due to injury, while Thulani Serero and Davy Klaassen have been kept out for a huge part of the season with groin strains. Nicolai Boilesen hasn’t been seen in the first-team since the 30 minutes he played in the Europa League match against Manchester United in February 2012 and young winger Jody Lukoki missed a few weeks with a knee injury. Such injuries left Ajax without an out-and-out striker for the majority of the campaign and have also left them relatively thin in other areas. However, the Amsterdam side were able to remain within touching distance throughout the first 17 games. They dropped points against some weaker teams but recovered by seeing off the likes of PSV and Twente while holding Feyenoord to a draw to ensure no one got too far ahead, before they steadied the ship over the winter break and then went full speed ahead to take over at the top of the league.
PSV will be desperate to knock Ajax’s ship off course and into some stormy weather as they hope to pull themselves level with the current league leaders with a win on Sunday. The hosts’ fantastic goalscoring record earlier on in the season could then make the difference as they hold a goal difference of +58, much greater to Ajax’s +42. But with a full team (outwith suspended goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer) heading to Eindhoven in good form, Ajax will be confident they can shake off the challenge of PSV and keep on sailing towards the title. It would see Frank de Boer not only dodge the challenge of a manager under which he served (The Netherlands ’92-‘ 94, ‘ 02-‘ 04), it would also show how he has evolved above the level of his former master.
Featured image courtesy of © anp.