PSV’s tyros ready to recall the greatest semi

Posted by Andy Brassell

The strict class ordering of European football in a post-globalisation world has been brutal, particularly on some of the continent's grandest names of yesteryear. It is felt in the Netherlands as keenly as it is anywhere; Jong Ajax coach Bryan Roy told this writer a few years back that his job was not just to mould the youngsters from the famed De Toekomst academy in the club's traditions, but to prepare them for market. All but the very biggest must breed to sell these days.

Sell is exactly what Ajax's main rivals PSV Eindhoven have done this summer -- and how. The core of the side was decimated as Kevin Strootman, Jeremain Lens, Dries Mertens, Erik Pieters and Marcelo all made the break for pastures new. Given the introduction of an inexperienced new head coach in club legend Phillip Cocu and the continuing dominance of Ajax under coach Frank de Boer, and with a Champions League qualifying campaign coming up, you could have forgiven the Philips Stadion patrons for being a little twitchy.

Those doubts have been assuaged in the early weeks of the season, and in spectacular style. From the moment teenage forward Memphis Depay rattled in a quite stupendous long-range effort to open the scoring in the third qualifying round first leg against Zulte Waregem, PSV have been irresistible.

Following their 3-0 win over Go Ahead Eagles on Saturday evening, PSV sit atop the Eredivisie with a 3-0 record (5-0 in all competitions). Memphis' goal that started it all off epitomises the early impressions of the new PSV side -- young, dynamic entertainers. Now captained by the excellent Georginio Wijnaldum, who is only 22, Cocu's rapidly constituted side had a lot to live up to not just in the sense of the club's historical prestige, but after last season, when Dick Advocaat's team rattled in 103 goals in 34 Eredivisie games despite ultimately finishing seven points adrift of champions Ajax.

Zakaria Bakkali celebrates after completing his hat-trick for PSV.
GettyImagesZakaria Bakkali is one of the new faces making waves at PSV.

The striplings have responded. PSV have scored 16 goals in their opening five matches, and half of those have been scored by teenagers. In the 5-0 trouncing of NEC Nijmegen, 17-year-old Belgian forward Zakaria Bakkali scored a hat trick of impeccable quality, with the final goal featuring a dribble in from the left wing before a dipping shot into the top corner from outside the penalty area.

In the current context, 19-year-old Jetro Willems, a full Netherlands international who hit what turned out to be the winner on opening day at Den Haag, is almost a veteran, and is set to reach his half-century of Eredivisie appearances in the next few weeks. One imagines that chairman Ron Verkerk -- who worked hard to play down expectations in media interviews at the draw for the Champions League third qualifying round -- is wearing a rather more relaxed expression today.

Although ostensibly weakened by so many departures, the advantage for Cocu in the situation he inherited was twofold. First, he had a smooth handover, having already worked as assistant to predecessor Advocaat, following a previous spell as caretaker. Second, the existing game plan already suited energetic youngsters, based on pressing high up the pitch, and a relentless, attacking attitude.

The sense that they're building something is palpable, a welcome feeling given that the club will celebrate its centenary on Aug. 31. A return to the Champions League group stage after four years away would mean so much this year. Among Dutch clubs, PSV is every bit as much attached to the European Cup/Champions League as Ajax in modern times.

So if ever there was a good moment to face such a huge tie as the Champions League playoff against AC Milan, this is it. Certainly we have every right to expect PSV to attack the tie with every bit of the bravery that Ajax displayed in an excruciatingly difficult Champions League last season.

The historical resonance of this tie demands something special. If most recall the 2004-05 Champions League for Liverpool's legendary comeback in Istanbul, the same is not true in the southern part of the Netherlands. After a 2-0 defeat in the San Siro in the semifinal first leg, Guus Hiddink's side was expected to fold comfortably to the Rossoneri.

Instead, Carlo Ancelotti's side were given the fright of their lives, going 2-0 down to a rampant PSV before Massimo Ambrosini's injury-time goal prevented an extra half-hour of anxiety, and possibly even an exit. Cocu's even later strike -- his second of the night -- equaled the aggregate score, but the Dutch were out on away goals.

It is not difficult to imagine Cocu getting a lump in his throat as he hears the familiar music pre-kickoff on Tuesday night. There is a further connection to 2005, with the return of the first goal scorer from that heady night at the Philips Stadion, Park Ji-Sung, on a year's loan from Queen's Park Rangers.

That experience will be good to draw on, but it's important to point out that PSV's lineup isn't completely callow. Former AZ midfielder Stijn Schaars has started the campaign well following his return to the Eredivisie from Portugal, while Ola Toivonen and Tim Matavz have been around the block and are good to have around, even if they are tipped to be the next out the door. Hotly tipped playmaker Adam Maher is only 20, but he already has two full league seasons under his belt and PSV beat a host of clubs to sign him.

Last season was, arguably, the first in Milan's own regeneration. They are undoubtedly the favourites, and with Stephan El Shaarawy, Kevin-Prince Boateng and the fit-again Mario Balotelli firing them in the second half of last season, they showed they are moving on to be more than just an illustrious name from the competition's past.

Yet Max Allegri & Co. are likely to find opponents who will not be nervous or overawed at this crucial early juncture of the season. Not one but two great names in the Champions League are ready to show what bright futures they could have in store.

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