The Netherlands was the place to be last weekend as central Europe came back from its habitually leisurely winter break. Arguably the continent’s tightest league also had its biggest showpiece to spice it up too but still, the earth really moved for the restart of the Eredivisie at the weekend, on and off the pitch.
In De Klassieker (the Dutch version remains untouched by the world domination of Barcelona and Real Madrid), Ajax swept past Feyenoord with the sort of élan synonymous with their proud image, trumoing their bitter rivals 3-0. The occasion caused enough tremulousness that both teams’ benches stood and rushed towards the touchline with a few minutes to go, as it appeared they were being pelted with snowballs from the higher reaches of the stadium. In fact, the sheer weight of precipitation on the roof of the Amsterdam Arena saw the snow at the front begin falling to earth.
Feyenoord could probably empathise. A renewed proposition under the reign of Ronald Koeman, they were rarely in the match. Ajax suffered their now-habitual haemorrhaging of talent last summer - Jan Vertonghen, Vurnon Anita and Gregory van der Wiel were all among the departed this time – but are looking fresh. Nobody is more so than Viktor Fischer, with the 18-year-old virtually deciding the match by half-time with a pair of ludicrously confident finishes. Remarkably for a team in third (behind leaders Twente and PSV), they look like the side to beat.
Considerably less rancour had been expected in Eindhoven on Friday night, with PSV welcoming modest PEC Zwolle, who hadn’t won at the Philips Stadion in almost twenty years. Dick Advocaat’s side are - by some distance - the Eredivisie’s top scorers, having rattled in 61 goals in the season’s opening 19 matches (16 more than Ajax, for the record). Remarkably they fell to a 3-1 defeat, undone by the sort of defensive gremlins that surface from time to time.
It wasn’t pretty. Erik Pieters, the Netherlands left-back who was once the subject of heavy attention from Newcastle United, marked his comeback from a nine-month injury break with a straight red card. He then proceeded to vent his frustrations on a window in the tunnel, badly cutting his arm and being rushed to hospital for a skin graft. Pieters apologised to the club and the fans in a Monday press conference, looking crestfallen behind a jumbo sling.
These two aren’t the only contenders - Steve McClaren’s Twente still lead despite a limp goalless draw with RKC Waalwijk and Feyenoord remain in fourth, just four points behind Twente. Meanwhile the surprise packages of pre-Christmas, Vitesse, are a further two back despite the rude awakening of a 4-1 battering at mid-table AZ.
The bad news for the rest is that Ajax have been strong finishers in each of the past two seasons. At the beginning of February last year, they were languishing in 6th place after a home defeat by Utrecht. Their response was to win all of their remaining 14 league games and sweep to a second successive title.
Frank De Boer’s side are building up a head of steam again. Having fearlessly spiked Manchester City’s Champions League campaign, they may be destined to take time out from riding their Eredivisie juggernaut to do the same to Chelsea in the Europa League last 16. It’s the last thing that poor Rafa needs.
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