The twenty fourth round of Eredivisie action got underway on Friday evening in The Hague where hosts, ADO Den Haag – despite earning their first point under new coach, Alfons Groenendijk, missed the opportunity to climb off the foot of the table after being held by visitors, FC Twente.
The hosts came into this encounter having lost all six of their league outings since the turn of the year but looked to be on course for a rare three points when Ruben Schaken put the hosts into the ascendancy after only twelve minutes had been played at the Kyocera Stadion – Schaken finding himself in the right place at the right time to tap the ball into an unguarded net after Nick Marsman had earlier denied Guyon Fernandez on the edge of the box – the 30-year-old winter signing having initially been slipped in by an incisive pass from Dion Malone.
However, while the wait for a first point of the Alfons Groenendijk era was brought to an end, the host’s wait for a first victory continued thanks to Manchester City loanee, Enes Unal, who brought Rene Hake’s men back on level terms in the 26th minute in spectacular fashion – the 19-year-old Turkish international beating ADO ‘keeper, Robert Zwinkels from range to notch his eleventh goal of a prolific campaign and ultimately, consign the home side to the Eredivisie basement for another week.
However, it could have been so different for the hosts who went close to restoring their advantage just two minutes later and could have had a penalty when goal scorer, Schaken, having cut in from the right, teed up Malone whose deflected effort appeared to come off the arm of Hidde ter Avest before cannoning off a grateful Marsman’s left hand upright.
Saturday’s Eredivisie action kicked off with FC Utrecht coming out on top in a five-goal thriller with FC Groningen at the Noordlease Stadion.
Having recorded just one win since the turn of the year, the hosts came into this encounter with no win in their last five outings but found themselves with a two-goal cushion at the break thanks to a first half double from Bryan Linssen – the 26-year-old rising highest to head home a pinpoint Tom Hiariej cross from the right with just four minutes on the clock before doubling the host’s advantage on the stroke of half time – Linssen beating Willem Janssen to a hopeful punt by Jason Davidson before slotting the ball past an exposed David Jensen.
Having been largely outplayed by their hosts who had inflicted a five-goal hammering on their visitors in the reverse fixture in the early weeks of the season when both clubs were in the midst of a string of poor results – the visitors did almost draw level against the run of play when Gyrano Kerk headed a Giovanni Troupee cross from the right off home ‘keeper, Sergio Padt’s right hand upright.
However, having won three of their last four, Erik ten Hag saw his side respond impressively in the second period to turn the score-line on its head and remarkably snatch all three points – Sebastien Haller initially reducing the arrears with a powerful header following a corner from Yassin Ayoub nine minutes into the second half before Utrecht’s marauding 18-year-old full back, Troupee crashed the ball past home ‘keeper, Padt from just inside the area to bring the visitors back on level terms with eleven minutes to play leaving Ayoub to complete the turnaround – the 22-year-old Moroccan capping a fine individual display by waltzing through the home defence and poking the ball past an exposed Padt.
With no wins in their last ten outings – having last tasted victory in mid-November, it is unsurprising to see Excelsior in the midst of the relegation mire and their quest for Eredivisie survival was hardly helped by slipping up at home to Willem II – who themselves appear to have banished any worries relating to their own top flight safety, at the Stadion Woudestein on Saturday evening.
A dour opening period produced few chances and no goals with the hosts coming closest to opening the scoring in the form of full back, Khalid Karami – whose powerful strike from the edge of the area rattled visiting ‘keeper, Kostas Lamprou’s crossbar two minutes before the break.
Following the resumption, the game suddenly sprang to life with two quick-fire strikes just after the hour mark effectively sinking the hosts – Dico Koppers squeezing the ball past Warner Hahn from just outside the box after the home defence failed to clear a long throw in the 62nd minute before Erik Falkenburg doubled the away side’s advantage just a minute later – heading home a Jordy Croux cross at the near post after the 23-year-old substitute had turned Bas Kuipers inside out on the right.
Things went from bad to worse for Mitchell van der Gaag’s side a minute into added time as they were reduced to ten men – substitute, Danilo Pantic being given his marching orders by referee, Ed Janssen after receiving a straight red card for a reckless challenge on Darryl Lachman.
However, while things were hardly getting any better in one Rotterdam-based outfit’s quest for top flight survival, another – Sparta Rotterdam, snatched a priceless three points following a narrow win over out-of-form, NEC Nijmegen at the Goffertstadion.
The hosts should have taken the lead just after the quarter hour when referee, Martin van den Kerkhof pointed to the spot after a reckless challenge from Mart Dijkstra sent Julian von Haacke sprawling in the visitor’s area only for Sparta ‘keeper, Roy Kortsmit to repel Gregor Breinburg’s spot-kick.
Alex Pastoor’s men – who have a KNVB Beker semi-final against Vitesse Arnhem to look forward to on Wednesday evening, made it five defeats on the bounce for Peter Hyballa’s men – who, having pulled away from the tightest relegation scrap the Netherlands has seen in many years, now appear in danger of being sucked right back into the battle for Eredivisie survival, thanks to a lone strike from Paco van Moorsel – the 27-year-old squeezing the ball between Joris Delle and the NEC ‘keeper’s left hand upright just after the half hour mark.
With just one win in seven outings since the turn of the year ahead of their encounter with struggling Roda JC on Saturday night, SC Heerenveen had appeared in danger of undoing all of the good work that Jurgen Streppel’s men had put in to an impressive first half of the campaign which had seen the Friesians riding the coat-tails of the ‘big three’ in the early part of the season.
Meanwhile, four points from the last six had seen Yannis Anastasiou’s men climb off the foot of the table and out of the bottom three, however, despite the recent arrival of co-owner, Alexei Korotaev and an overhaul of personnel during the January transfer window – bankrolled by the Russian banker’s millions, Roda are still struggling to pull clear of the relegation mire and the Kerkrade-based outfit were easily dispatched at the Abe Lenstra Stadion.
The visitor’s cause wasn’t helped by the 54th minute dismissal of Mohammed El Makrini who was shown a straight red card by referee, Siemen Mulder following a reckless challenge on Real Madrid loanee, Martin Ødegaard.
With the visitors forced to play the remaining 36 minutes with ten men, it came as little surprise when their hosts made the breakthrough on the hour mark – Doke Schmidt rising highest to head home a well-placed set piece from Ødegaard.
The home side eventually killed off their undermanned visitors with a pair of quick-fire strikes in the dying moments – substitute, Henk Veerman squeezing the ball between the impressive Benjamin van Leer and the Roda ‘keeper’s near post in the 89th minute before Iranian international, Reza Ghoochannejhad beat van Leer from the spot in the second minute of added time – referee, Mulder having awarded the hosts a penalty after Ard van Peppen had sent Sam Larsson tumbling in the area.
Sunday’s Eredivisie action got underway at De Adelaarshorst where cup semi-finalist’s Vitesse Arnhem tuned up for their final four encounter with Sparta Rotterdam on Wednesday evening by seeing off hosts, Go Ahead Eagles.
With the home side’s recent revival – which had seen Hans de Koning’s side temporarily climb out of the bottom three after putting together their first back-to-back successes of the season – following up an away triumph over NEC Nijmegen by taking all three points from their relegation showdown with fellow strugglers, ADO Den Haag, having come to an abrupt halt in Kerkrade last time out, the Deventer-based outfit had hoped to catch their high-flying visitors with their eyes on their mid-week cup engagement.
However, despite the home side fashioning the majority of clear-cut chances in the first period, it was Henk Fraser’s side who – having lost their last two on the bounce, hit the front against the run of play with their only real goal-scoring opportunity of a lacklustre first half display – Ricky van Wolfswinkel showing some deft control to bring down a Kelvin Leerdam flick-on and evade the attentions of both Xandro Schenk and Marcel Ritzmaier before poking the ball past home ‘keeper, Theo Zwarthoed from close range just before the half hour mark.
If the visitor’s half time lead had been somewhat underserved, their second half display more than merited all three points – Navarone Foor bending the ball delightfully around Zwarthoed to double the visitor’s advantage seven minutes into the second half before Milot Rashica skinned Ritzmaier and slammed the ball past the home ‘keeper to ultimately seal all three points for the away side ten minutes from time who, as a result, edged back into the UEFA Europa League playoff places despite Arsenal loanee, Daniel Crowley netting a consolation for the home side two minutes from time.
Following a seven-goal thrashing at the hands of Lyon in the second leg of their UEFA Europa League tie on Thursday evening, AZ Alkmaar failed to lift the gloom in the air around the AFAS Stadion a little later on Sunday afternoon as John van den Brom’s side were held by struggling PEC Zwolle.
Despite having a cup semi-final against second tier, SC Cambuur to look forward on Thursday evening, the manner in which van den Brom’s men had been swept aside – shipping eleven goals over two legs in the tie overall against a French side who currently lie a distant fourth in Ligue 1 had led to some serious questions being asked regarding both the attitude of the players and the future of the coach and the growing consternation of those in the stands bubbled back to the surface once more when New Zealander, Ryan Thomas fired the away side into the ascendancy against the run of play three minutes after the break.
After having dominated the opening period, the second stanza became more of an end-to-end affair as the hosts were forced to open up in search of an equaliser and, despite Fred Friday’s close range finish sparing the blushes of van den Brom’s men nine minutes from time, the Nigerian’s fourth goal of the season in AZ colours did little to dispel the growing unrest amongst the supporters who will now turn a wary eye to their cup semi-final against Cambuur – a side who have accounted for both Ajax and FC Utrecht earlier in the competition.
There was little doubt as to which match was the stand-out fixture of the round – with two of the top three going head-to-head at De Kuip on Sunday afternoon where league leaders, Feyenoord took a huge step towards lifting their first Eredivisie title since 1999 by seeing off reigning back-to-back champions, PSV Eindhoven – effectively ending any hope Phillip Cocu’s men had of retaining their crown for a third season in succession.
With both sides unbeaten in the league in 2017, what was predicted to be a tight affair ultimately proved to be just that despite the home side coming out of the blocks quickly – squandering a host of opportunities in the opening minutes before Jens Toornstra fired the hosts into the ascendancy with just nine minutes on the clock – the 27-year-old Dutchman slamming his tenth of the season in all competitions past visiting ‘keeper, Jeroen Zoet after having been found unmarked just inside the area by a marauding Terence Kongolo.
Despite enjoying the majority of the chances in the first period, Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s side failed to add to their advantage and were made to pay for their profligacy in front of goal when Uruguayan, Gaston Pereiro clawed the visitors back on level terms just after the hour mark – PSV’s top goal-scorer curling the ball delightfully beyond the despairing dive of Feyenoord’s Australian stopper, Brad Jones to restore parity in the 62nd minute.
When Zoet was saved by the foot of his left hand upright just moments later after being beaten by a Steven Berghuis effort, it seemed as though the wretched luck that has dogged the Rotterdam club time and again over the course of what has been a tumultuous opening to the 21st Century for one of the country’s ‘big three’, was set to strike again and derail the title ambitions of van Bronckhorst’s side and their long-suffering fan base.
However, there has been an element of irresistibility about Feyenoord’s title charge this term and when the breakthrough eventually did arrive for the hosts – who have suffered defeat on just one occasion all season in the league when they surprisingly went down at the hands of struggling Go Ahead Eagles at De Adelaarshorst at the start of November, it had no small element of fortune about it – referee, Bas Nijhuis at first appearing to rule that Dutch international stopper, Zoet had failed to prevent a Jan-Arie van der Heijden header from crossing the line following a Toornstra corner eight minutes from time via goal-line technology which then triggered a host of prolonged protests from the incredulous visitors before replays later indicated that the PSV ‘keeper had unwittingly taken the ball over the line after having initially denied the Feyenoord centre half.
With the reigning champions having effectively bowed out of the title race, it was over to second-placed, Ajax who, having seen Feyenoord temporarily extend their advantage at the top of the table to eight points, made it seven league wins in a row since the turn of the year by sweeping visitors, Heracles aside at the Amsterdam ArenA in the final match of the weekend, to keep their own title hopes alive and well.
However, despite Danish starlet, Kasper Dolberg having put the hosts into the ascendency with 23 minutes on the clock after capitalising on some poor handling by visiting ‘keeper, Bram Castro when the Heracles stopper failed to hold a Davy Klaassen strike from just outside the area, the home side – who squeezed past Polish champions, Legia Warsaw to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League on Thursday evening, found themselves pegged back just two minutes later when Samuel Armenteros headed home a Wout Droste cross from the right with 25 minutes gone.
However, any hopes John Stegeman’s men might have harboured of taking home an unlikely point from their trip to Amsterdam were dispelled in the space of four second half minutes – 17-year-old, Matthijs de Ligt restoring the home side’s advantage – heading home his first goal for the first team eleven minutes after the break following a Hakim Ziyech corner from the left before Colombian centre half, Davinson Sanchez made it three on the hour mark with a long range daisy-cutter.
With the home side in complete control and Ajax coach, Peter Bosz having handed recent big-money signing, David Neres his bow for the hosts eighteen minutes from time, Chelsea loanee, Bertrand Traore eventually added a fourth for the Lancers – star man, Ziyech capping off a fine individual performance by serving up a perfect ball for the Burkina Faso international to beat Castro from close range the 90th minute.
Having once more reduced the gap to bitter rivals, Feyenoord to five points and, with a potentially title-deciding showdown with Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s league leaders to come at the start of April, Peter Bosz’s title hopefuls will know, having seen reigning back-to-back champions, PSV Eindhoven fall by the wayside, that they cannot afford to let up in their relentless pursuit of the Rotterdam giants if they hope to secure a 34th league title in May.
Results: Week 24
ADO Den Haag 1-1 FC Twente
FC Groningen 2-3 FC Utrecht
Excelsior 0-2 Willem II
NEC Nijmegen 0-1 Sparta Rotterdam
SC Heerenveen 3-0 Roda JC
Go Ahead Eagles 1-3 Vitesse Arnhem
AZ Alkmaar 1-1 PEC Zwolle
Feyenoord 2-1 PSV Eindhoven
AFC Ajax 4-1 Heracles
Click on Steven’s name above to follow him on Twitter