AZ – Landskampioen van Nederland 2008/2009

Now that Alkmaar Zaanstreek (AZ, not AZ Alkmaar as usually known) has won the Eredivisie for only the 2nd time in their history, Dutch football is certain to face another shift of power.

Much has been said of the ‘Big Three’ of the Netherlands – PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam and Ajax Amsterdam and their enviable record of each having won the European Cup (predecessor of the Champions League) at least once and shared the most Dutch football prizes amongst themselves. Back even in the late 90s, these clubs are the springboards to continental European glory for the most ambitious of players. Ajax had been the home of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart to name a few – PSV had Ruud van Nistelrooy, and more recently, Park Ji-Sung and Philip Cocu whereas Feyenoord had in their record books names such as Jon Dahl Tomasson and Pierre van Hooijdonk.

This time around, for the 2008/2009 Eredivisie – there doesn’t seem to be a whiff of such dominance only afforded to these 3 biggest clubs in the Eredivisie. By early January 2009, the Landskampioen seemed to take shape and belong to AZ indefinitely, with PSV clearly the dark horses and Feyenoord already out of the picture since late 2008 was underway. Of the 3, only Ajax had a realistic chance of capturing the title – but blew it when Klaas Jan Huntelaar signed for Real Madrid in the 2009 January transfer window.

AZ, now coached by the coach everyone loves to hate – Louis van Gaal who spectacularly bombed Holland’s World Cup 2002 qualification campaign even with a dazzling array of Dutch stars at his disposal. He may have won Ajax’s (and a Dutch club’s) most recent European top club prize but that was more than 10 years ago. However, for better or for worse, the team he has assembled in Alkmaar has put aside the pretenders of the season, including the top 3 and won in dominant style – with four games left to spare and 11 points over their closest rival, Ajax Amsterdam, this despite AZ’s Saturday loss to Vitesse Arnhem 2-1.

Many should remember AZ’s fantastic run in the 2004/2005 UEFA Cup when they reached the semi-finals of the tournament, then coached by Co Adriaanse. The team which Adriaanse molded included Joris Mathijsen, Barry Opdam, Kew Jaliens and Denny Landzaat to name a few – and put a solid foundation for van Gaal to add onto it. AZ may have finished 11th place last season under van Gaal and lost many other key players in the process, but it proved a mere blip.

What of the other rivals from the top 3?

Ajax had the best chance to win it – but as usual, had the backroom to thank for their off the pitch antics. Their players aren’t too bad – just that they don’t terrorise the Eredivisie enough – not enough leadership and the tough-cutting style of the Frank de Boer & Co. era. That Ajax lost to PSV in a mathematical Eredivisie title decided 6-2 yesterday is evidence that the Amsterdam swagger is not piling on the weight.

PSV Eindhoven is another quandary – they lost so many players over the years to other richer clubs that even Arsene Wenger would have delightedly pointed out this precedent when asked if he would strenghten his own Arsenal squad. It would seem strange that this provincial club would struggle this time in the Dutch league. Having lost the enigmatic Jefferson Farfan to Schalke 04 in the summer, they have also conceded top fumbler Heurelho Gomes to Spuds and made several backroom ruckas by appointing unpopular coach Huub Stevens to replace caretaker coach Sef Vergoossen who led the team previously to the title in 2007/2008. They also lost young, promising talent – Ismail Aissati to rivals Ajax and replaced them all with Jeremie Brechet, Erik Pieters, Stef Nijland, Zhou Haibin and Ola Toivonen. Swedish keeper Andreas Isaksson (formerly of Juventus) was called to replace Gomes but did not live up to his predecessor’s reputation.

Feyenoord is, well, 100 years old this season and did they celebrate it. Gertjan Verbeek, who did a respectable job at sc Heerenveen did not perform to expectations and the team doesn’t now have a full-time manager. Leon Vlemmings is serving as a stop-gap measure. On paper, Feyenoord seemed to have the most experienced squad – Kevin Hofland, Gio van Bronckhorst, Tim de Cler, Henk Timmer, Denny Landzaat, Roy Makaay, and returning hero Jon Dahl Tomasson all sure to challenge for domestic honours. They now sit a mediocre 9th place in the Eredivisie – a far cry from their most recent European success – the UEFA Cup in 2001/2002.

The main point of this article is not to denigrate AZ’s success – it’s just that the overall quality of the Dutch league has suffered – when the top 3 is not putting up a decent fight, then it doesn’t take a Guus Hiddink to know that the Eredivisie is even worse off than before.Financially, the top 3 had the basis of a good club by European standards – Feyenoord and Ajax had top football stadiums with capacities of over 50,000 each with their De Kuip and Amsterdam ArenA respectively. PSV had the financial backing of electronics giant Philips (although the global recession may have hit them particularly hard), but nevertheless, had a decent stadium for gate receipts. AZ, by comparison, operates on a mere 25 million GBP. Dirk Scheringa, the AZ chairman who has been instrumental towards this success, and is the CEO of the eponymous DSB Groep (Dirk Scheringa Beheer Groep). AZ only came back to the Eredivisie in 1998 and has endured a lean spell for a time. Success may have been long coming but it was deserved.

As a supporter of PSV, I think the most realistic direction for the club is to qualify direct for the UEFA Cup (now called the Europa League). It may not have the financial boost of the Champions League (which survived the financial drought) which AZ may now benefit from, but PSV has recruited Fred Rutten for next year’s campaign. Actually, I thought that current caretaker coach Dwight Lodeweges is doing a pretty good job and that new players should repair the damage but that’s another story for another day. For now, just qualify for the Europa League and fly the PSV pennant in glory next season.

AZ, we’ll come back stronger…     

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