Four challengers, one trophy. The state of play in the Eredivisie title race
It has felt a while since the Eredivisie had a genuine title race. Granted last season ended with PSV Eindhoven only two points behind Ajax, yet Eric ten Hag’s side barely broke sweat in the run-in, going 10 games unbeaten. They cruised over the fin
- Mar 18 2023
- 4829 Views
It has felt a while since the Eredivisie had a genuine title race.
Granted last season ended with PSV Eindhoven only two points behind Ajax, yet Eric ten Hag’s side barely broke sweat in the run-in, going 10 games unbeaten. They cruised over the finishing line, rather than straining every sinew to keep their noses in front. In 2020/21, the gap between the two sides was instead a giant 16 point chasm, whilst hopes of a tense finale with AZ Alkmaar in 2020 were ruined by the pandemic. Before that, Ajax went 8 games undefeated to lift the 2018/19 trophy, with the 3 points to the next side below them a mirage to any degree of tension.
One would arguably have to go back five years, to the last time the famous Amsterdam club didn’t win the trophy, if you wanted an example of an edge-of-your seat finale.
It is within this context that the 2022/23 season is so exciting, with four sides having a real chance of ending the season as Dutch champions – Feyenoord, Ajax, PSV and AZ.
This Sunday will provide a potentially title-deciding contest, with league leaders Feyenoord travelling to Ajax. Incredibly, it is a fixture which the Rotterdam club has failed to win since 2006, losing 14 of their last 16 away league matches against their historic rivals.
At such a key point in the campaign, here is an assessment of the title credentials of these four protagonists:
The current favourites are Arne Slot’s Feyenoord, who are looking to lift the title for the first time since a Dirk Kuyt inspired team did so in 2017. On paper, it is Feyenoord’s to lose. They are 3 points clear at the top and, remarkably, remain undefeated in all competitions in 2023 and have only one Eredivisie loss to date. In addition, they have reached the semi-finals of the Dutch Cup and are riding even higher after thrashing Shakhtar Donetsk 7-1 to reach the Europa League quarter-finals.
Crucially, Feyenoord has real momentum and confidence. This belief has had a flame lit below it due to recent late wins after not playing particularly well, which is always a sign of a good team, finding an 88th-minute winner to beat relegation-threatened Groningen and coming from behind to overcome stubborn Volendam. They also safely navigated their hardest run of fixtures by drawing with Ajax and Twente, before striking late goals again to win a point against PSV and take all three against AZ. After Ajax they also have the best, remaining fixtures, playing four sides threatened by relegation and three inconsistent teams sitting comfortably mid-table.
With an average age of just 23, question marks will rightly be asked about the experience this young team has for a title run-in and whether they can hold it together, particularly if Ajax draws level on points this weekend. Even the impressive captain Orkun Kökçü is only 22. They also need to be a lot more clinical in the league, following an onset of recent wastefulness in front of goal. Main strikers Santiago Giménez and Danilo, who have combined to score only 15 of Feyenoord’s 56 league goals, need to get back to their best domestically.
Nonetheless, with the atmospheric De Kuip behind them and an extremely talented manager in Slott guiding the way, a betting person would right now put their money on Feyenoord.
The fact Ajax still has a chance of winning yet another Eredivisie is incredible considering the mess they have been in for most of the season. The heart of the Championship-winning team was ripped out of it last summer – along with the head in ten Hag – but the scale of the drop-off has been startling, with domestic struggles and European embarrassments leading to Alfred Schreuder getting the dreaded mid-season sack. For much of the 2022/23 season, they’ve looked like a team unsure of itself and lacking in confidence, a mix of players far from being the finished product, older heads looking their age, and others distracted by possible moves away.
However, heading into ‘De Klassieker’ they are still very much in the hunt for title 37. Under Johnny Heitinga they are ominously moving up the gears again, rising from as low as 5th. After failing to win 7 games in a row, drawing 6, they’ve now won 7 on the trot, scoring 20 goals in the process. A win against Feyenoord and the momentum could really shift and the squad’s belief fully return. There are still many squad players, such as captain Dusan Tadić and Edson Álvarez, who know what it takes to win a title. That experience could be crucial. As could the game-changing influence of the exciting talent Mohammed Kudus, who is the type of player who could produce the defining moment in a tight title race.
Ultimately, their chances may rest on three crucial games on the final stretch. The back-to-back matches against two of their three title rivals, PSV and AZ, are not to be missed. Likewise the final game of the campaign away to Twente.
For much of the first half of the season, PSV looked like the team to beat. After winning the first trophy on offer – the Dutch Super Cup – they spent intermittent weeks at the top of the Eredivisie, including on separate occasions after beating Feyenoord in a 4-3 thriller and winning away at Ajax. Then they sold their captain, main creative force, and inspiration Cody Gakpo to Liverpool and, despite Xavi Simons continuing on his impressive trajectory, have not been quite the same since. Indeed they find themselves six points off Feyenoord with only nine games left of the season. And, despite his decisive and confident leadership, the hard fact remains that this is Ruud van Nistelrooy’s first senior management role, an inexperience that has to be counted against the Eindhoven outfit.
Despite this, you cannot write PSV off just yet. It has gone under the radar that they are now themselves seven games undefeated. And whilst there is a huge Gakpo-shaped hole in their team, they do have a well-settled side, with the likes of Joey Veerman and Guus Til sharing the attacking load with Simons and Ibrahim Sangaré consistently providing solidity and drive from midfield. They look potent in attack and solid defensively and have only dropped 4 points at the Philips Stadion. Plus there will be the boost of a probable Dutch Cup Final to look forward to, considering they are playing amateur success story Spakenburg in the semi-finals. A huge game to circle is the home contest against Ajax near the end of April, whilst the final game of their season against AZ could well end up being pivotal. Stranger things have happened than PSV’s season going full circle, right back to the top again.
The romantic’s choice? It would probably be AZ Alkmaar, who only have two league titles in their history, the last in 2009. Few would have predicted that they would be amongst the front-runners, especially for as long as they have, spending most of the post-World Cup period in 2nd or 3rd.
A youthful side has nothing to lose and several in-form players to boot, as well as the longest-serving manager of the four in Pascal Jansen, who clearly knows how to make the North Holland team tick. Despite losing captain Owen Wijndal to Ajax, they have really kicked on. Up-front, Vangelis Pavlidis is having an excellent season, being ably supported by Jens Odgaard, who is looking an inspired summer signing. In Swedish winger Jesper Karlsson they have one of the most thrilling and explosive wingers in the Eredivisie, whilst the full-back Yukinari Sugawara has become a potent attacking outlet.
The same red flags over lack of nous for a true title challenge will be placed against AZ and the pressure will undoubtedly be turned up a notch in the aforementioned matches against Ajax and PSV. However, they will fancy their chances. In their last 12 games they have only lost once – at the death to Feyenoord – and are performing well at both AFAS Stadion and away from home, with only Ajax having a superior away record. It should be noted that they have also now reached the quarter-finals of the Europa Conference League, which will add a further spring to their collective step.
The AZ underdogs have bite and will not go away easily. And to add extra narrative spice, who is the team where their captain Jordy Classie received his football education and made almost 200 senior appearances for? Feyenoord.
Share this page
Guest Posts by Easy Branches