Lead Photo Credit: Eredivisie
It has been nearly two years since the last winner of the Eredivisie. The Dutch top flight was the first major European football league to cancel its season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 crisis, meaning no champion for the first time since 1945 and no relegation or promotion from the 18-team division.
That supplied an added level of intrigue to this campaign. As well as having no fans in stadiums, how would teams cope after so long away from domestic action?
The short answer is impressively well, with an exciting and unpredictable season ensuing. So as the Eredivisie heads quickly round the corner and onto the final straight, what are the big stories and talking points to look out for over the last five fixtures?
Can Ajax enter the record books?
When we say the season has been unpredictable, this did include the title-race until defending Champions Ajax put their foot down and left everyone else in their wake. In December, it was looking like a potential three or four horse race. Yet after a 2-1 defeat to Twente FC, Erik ten Hag’s side have gone on a sublime 17-match unbeaten run at time of writing, winning 14, despite also taking part in European competition, where they reached the Europa League quarter-finals.*
They have already broken the record for the League’s biggest ever win, routing poor VVV-Venlo 13-0, and if they win their final six matches will finish with 90 points, second in the all-time list and more than the famous 1994/95 team that went through the whole season undefeated (and won the Champions League). Defensively they could end up as the most successful existing Eredivisie side of the 21st century. At most they need just four points from their final six games (they have a game in hand) to lift a 27th title. And whilst it isn’t a record, it is surely worth mentioning that a remarkable 19 different players have scored for the Champions-elect.
A three-way fight for survival
If there is little by way of drama at the top of the table, that can’t be said for how things look at the bottom. Currently there are three teams – Willem II, VVV-Venlo and FC Emmen – separated by just one point, all vying for one place to avoid the second automatic relegation spot and the relegation play-off. For background, the play-off involves the 16th placed team competing with 6 others from the Dutch second division, the Eerste Divisie, for the final Eredivisie spot.
Ahead of those three, RKC Waalwijk still can’t be certain of avoiding an immediate, if not delayed, return to the Eerste Divisie. And right at the foot of the table ADO Den Haag, who had one Ravel Morrison on their books earlier in the season, will still believe a couple of wins could give them a chance of survival.
Based on current form, of the tightly-packed three it is FC Emmen who suddenly look to have the best chance, after winning back-to-back games for only the second time. If momentum is key then VVV-Venlo are in serious trouble – they’ve incredibly lost 10 games in a row. Both still have to play Ajax. As for Willem II, they have the best fixtures including winnable games against Waalwijk, ADO and Fortuna Sittard but ominously are three games without a win and a goal.
And just to top-off the tension? It’s FC Emmen v VVV-Venlo on the final day.
A European face-off
Due to the current UEFA coefficient of the Eredivisie, only the winners receive automatic Champions League qualification, with second place going into the second qualifying round. If you finish third, you enter the final qualifying round of the newly created European Conference League. The stakes therefore could barely be higher – potential Champions League football or playing in what is effectively the third-tier of European competition, below even the often criticised Europa League.
For the neutral it is ideal then that with so few games to go, there are two sides neck-and-neck in this European face-off, with PSV Eindhoven and AZ Alkmaar level on points. Even their goals for and against tallies are remarkably similar. Each will feel they have a point to make – the former has been comprehensively outperformed by Ajax since last winning the title in 2018, the latter was level on points with Ajax last year and looking for a first Championship in over a decade until COVID-19 intervened.
On paper PSV are slight favourites due to a more favourable run-in and a slightly more experienced squad with the likes of Denzel Dumfries and a certain Mario Götze. They also happen to have one of the players of the season in free-scoring Donyel Mallen. Yet after winning four on the bounce, if AZ can beat Ajax in their next game the momentum will surely shift back to the North Netherlands club.
Can Vitesse deliver the finish they deserve?
One of the feel-good stories of this campaign has been the rise of the challengers from the East, Vitesse Arnhem. For a chunk of the season, a side with only one major trophy and best-known abroad as a stepping stone for the likes of Mason Mount, Nemanja Matic and Wilfried Bony, was a contender for a possible title challenge.
A poor run winter of results, with four defeats in five games, put paid to those aspirations. Nevertheless, they have hit the ground running again just at the right time and could still secure a first ever appearance in the Champions League via the qualifying stages, being five points back with five games to go. Despite a frustrating draw to bottom club ADO last time out, only Ajax and AZ are ahead in the form table.
An enormous fixture against Feyenoord, who are right behind them, awaits. As previously mentioned on these pages it would be a wonderful feat if Vitesse can upset the traditional Dutch powerhouses. You can’t help but feel that they deserve it.
Young talents to watch ahead of the Euros
An approaching international summer tournament always creates further talking points as domestic seasons draw to a close. And with the Netherlands having an outside chance at the re-scheduled Euro 2020, there are several young players worth watching who will be banging on the door of Coach Frank de Boer – whether to start or be in the squad.
Two names who could well force their way into the startling 11 are previously mentioned PSV striker Mallen, who has an incredible 17 goals and 7 assists this year, and 18 year-old central midfielder Ryan Gravenberch, the latest Ajax star who broke through this season and has become indispensable for Erik ten Hag. Both have strong starting credentials considering Donny van de Beek’s lack of game time at Manchester United and the questions over de Boer’s preference for Luuk de Jong as his main forward. The right-winger Calvin Stengs is another to look at after a productive season with AZ. And there have been few better midfielders this year than the unsung Joey Veerman, reportedly on the radar of Ajax, who has a combined 19 goals and assists for mid-table Heerenveen.
There has also been some frustration at several young Eredivisie talents instead being selected for the Under-21 Championship who fans should keep an eye on. The Ajax defensive stalwart Perr Schuurs is arguably one of the best young centre-backs in Europe right now and Teun Koopmeiners, at only 23, is already captain of AZ and has managed 15 goals from central midfield. At Feyenoord, Justin Bijlow is now back from injury and could well end up his country’s number one goalkeeper for many years to come.