Is there a more exciting title race in Europe than the schizophrenic battle raging at the top of the Eredivisie? Is there a more unlikely candidate for a title than Groningen?
Groningen have shown a steady improvement over the last decade, under the shrewd guidance of first Rons Jans and now Pieter Huistra. Jans brought a new level of organisation to a side that had continuously made eyes with the relegation playoffs, laying strong foundations in the process. Talents such as Marcus Berg, Luis Suarez, Rasmus Lindgren and Bruno Silva were nurtured and moved on, and by the time the magnificent new Euroborg Stadium was opened, Groningen were regularly challenging for European football, qualifying for the UEFA Cup in both 2006 and 2007.
Further flirtation with Europe continued, as the Green-and-White finished in European playoff places in each of the following three seasons. After a managerial reign of almost a decade, Jans decided to step down at the end of last season, handing control to former Jong Ajax coach Pieter Huistra. The appointment appeared to be a mixed blessing for a relatively inexperienced man such as Huistra; an exciting club but how could Groningen possibly improve on their record under club legend Jans?
Huistra’s tenure started brilliantly, going seven matches undefeated from the opening day, topping the table in August, and holding both Ajax and PSV to credible draws. Such fine form has continued as Huistra’s side have added goals to their traditional steeliness – only PSV have scored more. For most of this season it has looked as if Groningen may be able to at least equal their previous best finish (third in 90/91) when only the goals of Romario and Dennis Bergkamp kept PSV and Ajax above them. Now it seems they may have an outside chance of winning their first title.
Holding midfield duo of Danny Holla and Tim Sparv have allowed the natural creativity of Dusan Tadic and Nicklas Pedersen to flourish, forming a formidable forward line with fifteen goal Slovenian Tim Matavz. Huistra’s deployment of the in-vogue 4-2-3-1 formation has been aesthetically pleasing, and the aerial superiority Groningen have to… pretty much everyone in the division has forced them into contention.
On Sunday Groningen destroyed Willem II by 7-1 in a quite remarkable match, pulling themselves to within four points of leaders PSV, who had been beaten a day earlier by a last minute Den Haag winner. Willem II, well familiar with such savage beatings, had started brightly, but the home side looked considerably hungrier. Groningen did well to retain the services of Andreas Granqvist during the transfer window in the face of interest from Turkey, and it was the towering Swede that opened the scoring against the run of play. Willem II attempted to rally, but Grandqvist’s countryman, Fredrik Stenman’s loping run from left back doubled the lead. Matavz’s first of a hat-trick arrived just before half time.
Still, Willem II were given some hope when Grandqvist was sent off for deliberate handball, allowing Andreas Lasnik to pull a goal back from the resulting penalty. Just when the match appeared to be in doubt, card happy referee Kevin Blom inexplicably dismissed Willem II’s Arjan Swinkels for the same offence.
To say that the pair have history is something of an understatement, as Blom showed the same defender a red card for handball in Willem II’s 4-1 defeat to VVV in November. On that occasion, replays showed that the referee had made the wrong decision, Swinkels had infact made an excellent last-ditch block, and the suspension was overturned by the KNVB. Four months later and Blom is left with further shame, for incorrectly dismissing the same player, for the same offence in the same season. Swinkels’s valid protests that the ball had hit an entirely more sensitive part of his anatomy were in vain, and he was again escorted cursing and kicking down the tunnel, as Matavz scored his second from the spot. Blom’s post-match assertions that his mistakes had been “very annoying for Willem II” were not met with sympathy from the club or the KNVB, who have subsequently sent him to Belgium (literally) to take charge of SC Lokeren vs Charleroi.
Gerrit Alexander’s second caution reduced the visitors to nine men, and they were further punished as Matavz completed his hat-trick and Thomas Enevoldsen tapped in a sixth. Tadic got the goal his afternoon so richly deserved with five minutes remaining.
Given PSV’s untimely slip, Twente were presented with an opportune moment to seize the lead at the top of the table. Utrecht had other ideas, and stretched their unbeaten run to five by claiming a 1-1 draw. Leon de Kogel had given Utreg a half time lead, but Nacir Chadli equalised after some superb build up by Luuk de Jong.
All of which allowed Ajax to quietly close the gap on the two leaders to three points. The club have had a busy week off the pitch, in which Dennis Bergkamp’s likely return as assistant manager and Johan Cruyff’s possible appointment as an advisor made headlines. De Graafschap made the hosts work for their victory, but Ajax were relatively comfortable 2-0 winners. Mounir El Hamdaoui scrambled the first, before Siem de Jong confirmed the win. Steve de Ridder came closest for De Graafschap, cracking Stekelenberg’s crossbar.
At the bottom of the table there were surprise results for both VVV and Excelsior, the former defeating NAC 3-0 for their first win since November and the latter pulling off a remarkable 2-1 win against Europa League hopefuls AZ. Dirk Marcellis’ inexplicable handball gave Tim Vincken all the opportunity he needed to cancel out Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s opener, and Jordy Clasie’s deceptive thirty five meter free kick won the game. This piled further pressure on Excelsior’s parent club, Feyenoord, who could only manage a 1-1 draw with fellow strugglers Vitesse; Luc Castaignos’s goal was almost immediately equalled by Ismail Aissati penalty. Feyenoord are now just two points ahead of their feeder team.
Heerenveen and NEC didn’t do their Europa League chances many favours with a 0-0 draw in Friesland, while Roda JC’s post-break troubles continued. Having lost just three games in the first half of the season, Harm van Veldhoven’s side have now lost their last two, and three of the last four.
Clearly not everyone enjoys such unpredictability!