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Thursday, January 3, 2008
What was hot and what was not

Ernst Bouwes

The halcyon days of wine and roses may be over in Dutch football, but suspense has made up for a lack of quality and success on the European stage.

The last day of the 2006-07 league season was the most spectacular finale in national history as three clubs headed the virtual leaderboard at some point during the afternoon and, in the end, just one goal decided the title race eventually. The year 2007 had several of these ups and downs:

The Top 3

(1) On the morning of the 34th matchday few people doubted AZ would take the title as they travelled to lowly Excelsior, who had nothing to play for. A win was enough for them to finish ahead of Ajax and PSV on goal difference.

Should AZ fail, then Ajax had a two-goal cushion on PSV. PSV were the first to score, then AZ went behind by a penalty while losing their red-carded keeper, but equalized quickly.

Halfway through the first half Ajax took the lead in their game at Willem II to bring them to the top of the leaderboard.

There was a standstill until the hour mark, when madness set in. PSV scored 3-1 against Vitesse, while AZ fell behind again.

With their fourth, PSV put their noses in front for only two minutes as Huntelaar then scored the second for Ajax while AZ came back level in Rotterdam.

At that point AZ and PSV both needed just one goal to jump over Ajax, who could boost their chances by scoring again in Tilburg.

AZ were further helped by a red card for Excelsior. But in those frantic last twenty minutes of the season only one man kept a cool head. In his 683rd and last league game, Philip Cocu was on the right spot in a scrimmage to drive home PSV's fifth goal.

Posts were hit, balls were cleared from the goal-line, hairs were torn from coaches' heads, but nothing changed on the scoreboards. Having held an eight-point lead late in the season PSV eventually grabbed the title with one goal to spare. The Dutch radio football show Langs de Lijn published a CD which covers these crazy ninety minutes in full. It's sensational.

(2) In June Holland hosted the European Championship for Under 21's as title-holders, but few of the previous winning team were allowed to play.

Coach Foppe de Haan built his new team on a striker who had scored three league goals for mediocre NAC Breda and a left back whose defence had conceded the most goals in the league but one.

However, Maceo Rigters and Royston Drenthe would steal the show, although most credit should go to the coach. His planning, dedication and team-building capacities are second to none. It made the Dutch youngsters more popular than the senior national team and earned several players surprise transfers abroad. At the moment Royston Drenthe refuses to play for the Marco Van Basten as he wants to go to the Olympic Games with Foppe de Haan.

(3) Speaking of Van Basten, although his team performed poorly on the pitch, he did achieve his target of qualifying for Euro 2008.

While Holland can still field a couple of European stars, like Mr Champions League himself Clarence Seedorf, the Real Madrid contingent of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robben and Sneijder and Robin van Persie, our biggest claims to fame are currently literally standing at the sidelines.

In Russia, Guus Hiddink turned a nation of has-beens into England-beaters much faster than even he expected. Hiddink hoped to take his squad to South Africa in 2010, but never imagined to go to the Alps next summer. His recent successes with South Korea and Australia on subsequent World Cups and with PSV in the Champions League have shown that a good coach can make the difference, although Hiddink is also dubbed Guus Geluk in Holland, 'Fortunate Gus' after a comic character.

Leo Beenhakker performed miracles as well in Poland. He reformed the squad with young blood and still managed to qualify, making the national team popular again after a disappointing World Cup in Germany.

At club level, Dick Advocaat questionably snubbed on his deal with the Australian FA, but surprised by taking the Russian title out of Moscow for the first time in 11 years with Zenit St Petersburg.

In Germany, Huub Stevens took Hamburger SV from the relegation zone in January to become a title contender in December and one of the favorites for the UEFA Cup, while Frank Rijkaard is the longest serving Barcelona coach since Johan Cruyff.

Dutch trainers are hot; Ronald Koeman and Henk ten Cate were transferred during the season to Valencia and Chelsea respectively from which PSV and Ajax made serious money.

On the downside of 2007:

The flop 3

(1) They say you should not throw away old shoes before you've bought new ones. In the past couple of months, AZ coach Louis van Gaal found out that even after a purchase it is wise to make sure the new ones are comfortable enough.

He ditched top-scorer Danny Koevermans for a couple of expensive youngsters, who turned out not to score that often or, in the case of Italian starlet and part-time ballroom dancer Pelle, not at all.

Secondly, his team never recovered from the terrible springtime when they stared all kinds of silverware in the face, but failed on every front at the last hurdle.

Currently, AZ are languishing somewhere in mid-table and have not looked like their formidable selves from recent seasons.

Even Van Gaal's press conferences have lost their edge. Wealthy chairman Dirk Scheringa announced at the start of the season that it was time to win trophees yet the club have not been further away from them over the last five years.

They have played scintillating football for the best part of this century but they have no silverware to show for this period and now it all seems set to fizzle out.

(2) Kicking out two English representatives in March, Arsenal and Newcastle United, was the last hurrah on the European battlefront for the Dutch platoon.

PSV and AZ both crashed in the next round, while this season has been a continuous string of disappointments.

After Huntelaar missed a penalty at home against Slavia Prague it all went downhill fast. Ajax could not qualify for the Champions League, then failed to reach the group phase of the UEFA Cup. So too Heerenveen, FC Groningen and FC Twente.

AZ escaped against Portuguese cupwinners Pacos de Ferreira to crash out in the second round. PSV bored everyone to death in the Champions League, but did manage to go into the UEFA Cup next month.

The sad result of this rather sudden implosion of Dutch football in Europe is the imminent loss of a Champions League qualifying ticket in 2009-10. Only the title-winner remains to play with the big boys.

This situation could change for the better the next season, but results of Eredivisie clubs in Europe need to improve dramatically. It would require a joint effort from the people in power to raise the level of the domestic game financially as well as on the pitch. Maybe the loss of this Champions League ticket is the wake-up call they require.

(3) As we stumble into 2008 the old guard head the Eredivisie table, but never before have three leaders lost so many points halfway.

Add that to their less-than-convincing football and a sense of derailment becomes clear. Feyenoord surely have the worst behind them with a horrendous second half of last season and have managed a well-organized turn-around. They owe much of their success to the experience and virtuosity of Roy Makaay, while coach Bert van Marwijk knows how to mend a defense. He is recognised as the number one candidate to succeed Marco van Basten after Euro 2008.

Ajax went nowhere under Henk ten Cate and it was a godsend that Chelsea came to take him off their hands, even leaving a bag of cash.

However, with so many managerial casualties in recent years their hotseat is only popular with the opportunists and that is not what the club needs.

While temp Adrie Koster, axed a year ago at downspiralling RKC Waalwijk, picks up the pieces unconvincingly, the board is hoping to sign a long-term solution next summer. Meanwhile, a commission is researching whatever went wrong within the club since winning the Champions League in 1995.

PSV's 2007 was just as bad. Losing to Liverpool in the Champions League can be forgiven but they almost threw away the title. New technical director Jan Reker could not find decent replacements for Alex and Cocu, while his signings have performed mediocrely so far.

Their easy win in the cup at the reserves of Heerenveen was defaulted as they had fielded the suspended Da Costa. It made them crash out in the opening round for the first time since 1964. Reker then agreed that after Ronald Koeman signed a lucrative contract with Valencia, he could leave immediately.

When possible replacement Martin Jol stalled negotiations, PSV faced a crucial week with games against Heerenveen, Fenerbahce and AZ with unwilling reserve coach Jan Wouters in charge. When the smoke lifted, there was only one point in the bag.

When still no one was directly available, Reker asked his friend Sef Vergoosen to help out until the summer. Vergoosen will start in January and will become head of the youth academy when Huub Stevens takes over in July. The current Hamburger SV boss can only pray that he will have a shot at next season's Champions League then.

The strange thing is, that every game in the Eredivisie currently can go either way. Even small, promoted VVV Venlo kept Ajax and Feyenoord to a draw at home and were rather short-changed by those results.

The only consistent factor in the Dutch league at the moment is its inconsistency. There is a new leader about every weekend. There might just be a surprise pair of champion and cup winner come the end of May.

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