If, as the saying goes, the test of true champions is winning without reaching the heights of brilliance, then PSV took a giant stride towards the title this week.
Without the wiles of Ola Toivonen, suspended for introducing Jan Vertonghen to the sharp end of his elbow, the leaders struggled to overcome a dogged Excelsior side determined to stay in the division.
Fred Rutten’s side were not short of endeavour but badly missed their captain’s creativity. Otman Bakkal, recipient of Luis Suarez’s now infamous bite in November, was drafted in as a replacement, as Engelaar was asked to do more creative work. Despite early pressure, PSV fell behind to Guyon Fernandez’s somewhat fortuitous looping header, giving the hosts a half time lead. There was no small amount of fortune in the equaliser either, Jeremain Lens’ cross dropping in at the back post over Nico Pellatz. Atiba Hutchinson’s solo effort asserted PSV’s authority and looked to have given them the victory.
In the final minute Excelsior were given hope with what looked to be the softest of penalties. Fernandez’s fizzing effort hit the arm of Hutchinson, which despite it being by his side and in no possible way deliberate, was enough for Danny Makkelie to award the spot-kick. Edwin de Graaf, on loan from Hibs, scored from twelve yards. Equally pliable was PSV’s winner a minute later: Pellatz adjudged to have pulled down Danny Koevermans, allowing Dzsudzsak to score the winner.
“We’re lucky to come away with all three points”, admitted Rutten in the post-match debriefing. He was not wrong, but PSV remain three points clear at the summit of the division.
Twente kept the pressure on the leaders with an equally hard fought win against NAC, who have won just once since the restart. Recent Dutch cap Luuk de Jong scored the first with an opportunist strike following a poor punch-out from NAC goalkeeper Jelle Ten Rouwelaar. Nacer Chadli tapped in the second on full time after strong running from Ola John.
While Twente have been less than stellar in recent weeks, they continue their season on three fronts, with a KNVB Cup final against Ajax and a difficult test against Zenit St Petersburg in the Europa League. Michel Preud’homme feels the constant schedule has had an effect on recent performances: “We did not start so well and that might have to do with the busy schedule. We are still competing on a number of fronts and as a result of that we are not always at our best. The conclusion is that we have picked up three points, and that is important”.
While Ajax’s victory on the pitch was less than difficult, Frank de Boer has had off the pitch incidents to deal with this week. Top scorer Mounir El Hamdaoui has been relegated to the reserve squad following allegations of “disrespect” during the 5-1 cup win over RKC. “I will not get into details, but it was unacceptable. We’ve told everyone how Ajax will work and if someone disrupts that they will drop out”.
A particularly youthful Ajax, without their exiled top scorer, brushed aside AZ 4-0. Demy de Zeuw, the only outfield player in the starting eleven over the age of 23, started the rout in the fifth minute; sliding in an Ebecilio cross from six yards. Siem de Jong prodded a second just after half time, before Ebecilio scored his first Eredivisie goal with twenty minutes remaining. Graziano Pelle had only been on the pitch for two minutes when he was sent off for a dangerous tackle on Dario Cvitanich, who provided the return pass for the fourth from Vurnon Anita.
With considerable less scandal and even more ease, ADO continued their superb second half of the season with a 5-1 victory over NEC. Slack defending allowed Lex Immers an easy opening goal, but no NEC match would be complete without a goal for Bjorn Vleminckx, who equalised with his 18th of the season. The same could be said for Dmitri Bulykin, whose penalty restored ADO’s lead on the half hour and left him just a single goal behind the Eredivisie top scorer. In the second half Wesley Verhoek stole the show, with a brilliant left footed drive from the corner of the box and a deadly delivery headed in by Jordy Brouwer. Jens Tournstra’s free kick wasn’t half bad either.
Groningen’s alarming recent slide continued with their second home 4-1 defeat in two weeks. From potential title challengers, they now find themselves in danger of slipping out of the European places, and have conceded 13 goals in their last three league games against the less than stellar trio of Roda, Feyenoord and now Heracles. The match started well for the hosts; Dusan Tadic gave them a deserved lead after 12 minutes only for Andreas Granqvist to miss a chance to double the lead by putting his penalty over the bar five minutes later.
The momentum swung back in favour of the visitors after that with Everton the architect of everything positive; pouncing on a goalkeeping error to equalise and setting up Samuel Armenteros to give Heracles an unlikely half time lead. Peter Huistra’s attempts at attacking the visitors in the second half only resulted in Heracles picking off their hosts on the counter attack; Everton’s second of the game and tenth of the term was followed by a brilliant solo goal from Armenteros. Only Feyenoord and Ajax have taken more points in their last five games than Heracles, who are surely safe.
Mario Been’s men look to have finally killed off their own relegation worries with their first consecutive wins of the season. Luc Castaignos scored the only goal of the game against Heerenveen, but it was again the presence of on-loan Arsenal midfielder Ryo Miyaichi that stood out. The eighteen year old has looked far more mature than his years (and his team-mates) and has inspired the club from the brink of relegation to what seems to be mid-table safety. Feyenoord have lost eleven games this season, but are yet to taste defeat when Miyaichi has played.
Utrecht drew for the fifth game in a row, although the result was more beneficial to their opponents, Roda JC, who maintain a three point gap in the Europa League playoff places. It will be of no surprise to learn that Mads Junker gave Roda the lead from the penalty spot. Leon de Kogel levelled the scores from Ricky Van Wolfswinkel’s through ball.
Vitesse eased their own woes with a 2-0 win at VVV, while Willem II contrived to lose against De Graafschap as only they can. 1-0 up thanks to Juho Hakola’s 78th minute strike, the bottom side only needed to keep their nerve against a woeful De Graafschap team in freefall. The lead lasted all of two minutes, Willem II’s defenders neglecting to pick up Rydell Poepon who knocked the ball under the out-of-position Verhulst. Worse was to follow as a suicidal goalkeeping clearance from Verhulst found substitute Hugo Bargas, who pushed the ball under the keeper from the edge of the box.
What they would do for the ability to win without playing well.