As the Eredivisie returns from the winter break and gets set for an incredibly exciting finish, the first round of league fixtures of 2013 includes one incredibly tense affair which will have a huge say in the title hopes of two of the five teams challenging for glory this season.
Ajax, returning from Rio de Janiero where the temperature climbed as high as 35°C, and Feyenoord, who spent their time in the 18°C heat of Marbella, are thrust back into league action this Sunday in the second Klassieker of the season. The forecast for the capital of Netherlands might suggest the mercury won’t pass zero, but these players will be exposed to conditions and temperatures higher than those they ever experienced throughout their time in their respective paradises.
The incalescent Amsterdam ArenA awaits both sides and the heat wave generated by 50,000 Ajax fans crying for blood will hit them as they emerge from the hypogeum, walk up the newly renovated steps and into the middle of the amphitheatre.
As far as clashes between these two giants of Dutch football go, this one comes with great importance and spice surrounding it.
For Frank de Boer’s Ajax, there is the need for revenge. The memories of some poor refereeing decisions and a debatable red card from the previous meeting between these teams still remain fresh with the Ajacied. The devastation brought on by that late volley by Graziano Pelle in Rotterdam in October, which levelled the scores and ensured the points were shared, still haunts the fans and the players, least of all Toby Alderweireld who was so easily shoved out of the way by the strong, clinical Italian. Those wounds and the feelings of injustice will have the Amsterdam natives screaming for, not just victory, but utter humiliation of their fierce rivals.
Feyenoord, on the other hand, have the desire to show that they are no longer living in the shadows of their much lauded and admired rivals. After finishing second to the reigning champions last season, the Rotterdam side are out to make it clear that they are not just equal to the capital club, but they are on their way to eclipsing them. The financial troubles are [almost] gone, the youth system is better than the more celebrated De Toekomst, the squad is young, dynamic and exciting and the potential is seemingly infinite.
Also, for Ronald Koeman’s side, there is the feeling of malfeasance, that they have been betrayed by a governing body which has appointed an assistant referee who is employed by the home side’s main sponsor. According to the Feyenoord faithful, something just doesn’t sit right. The KNVB have insisted that all of their officials have integrity and the fact that the name printed on the jerseys of one side is the same one which appears on the linesman’s paycheques will not affect the decisions made by that official. But the very notion that there could be a conflict of interests will sit in the back of the minds of the visitors with every call made against them. It’s a situation which could easily have been avoided by the Dutch association, even if there is no real threat of bias.
Both sides will be desperate to get one over on their archrivals at such a crucial stage in the campaign. These cities are separated by 45 miles, but their football sides couldn’t be closer together as they sit third and fourth in the Eredivisie, level on points with each other and three behind leaders PSV and Twente. Last term, Ajax and Feyenoord were essentially invincible following the turn of the year as De Boer’s men embarked on a 14 game winning streak to clinch the title for a second time in a row, while Koeman’s side lost just two games in the second half of the season to claim the runner-up spot. All of which goes to show that a good start to the New Year is a must for either side to boost their title credentials, and there is no better way to strengthen your own by denting those of your enemy.
Ajax welcome long-term absentees Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Ryan Babel back to the team, meaning that De Boer has, outwith Nicolai Boilesen and Davy Klaassen, an entire squad to choose from. The absence of an out-and-out goalscorer has affected the attacking potency of this side. But De Boer, who has proven to be tactically excellent, has carved a false striker out of Christian Eriksen and altered between the young Denmark international and captain Siem de Jong to cover for the lack of options up front. Although it is likely that Sigthorsson will be on the bench as the teams line up for this match, the return of the Icelandic forward will boost the threat of the hosts and allow the coach to completely change the shape and style of attacks should the need arise during the match.
Feyenoord, however, is a team to have benefited immensely from having a fit, clinical striker leading the attack throughout the campaign. Fierce forward Pelle has linked up very well with the supporting cast, which boasts great talents such as Jordy Clasie, Lex Immers, Daryl Janmaat and Wesley Verhoek, to net 14 goals in as many appearances in the first half of the season. The Italian frontman will be hoping to have a greater impact on this derby match than he did on the previous one and look to replicate the exploits of his predecessor John Guidetti who scored a hat-trick in the meeting between these teams almost a year ago. Winger Sekou Cisse is available for this clash, but there is a possibility that Jean-Paul Boetius will line up on the left flank on Sunday. Boetius will be looking to have a similar impact on this Klassieker derby as he did on the previous one in which he fired home to cancel out Christian Eriksen’s early opener – a dream first-team debut for a very talented young player.
This fixture can be whittled down to a fight between the two best youth academies in Netherlands (read: the world). Feyenoord’s Varkenoord system has been voted the best in the country in each of the last three years, while Ajax’s De Toekomst continues to absorb the applause from the rest of the world. Both teams possess as much talent as they do youth and are under the guardianship of two fantastic coaches. Koeman may have much more managerial experience than his counterpart, but De Boer is clearly as talented and committed as his former Netherlands team-mate. They will have prepared their players as well as they possibly can and will know exactly what to expect from each other.
Two very attractive, electrifying and youthful sides, de Klassieker is always a wonderful sporting spectacle, this time however, it comes with bigger consequences than previous clashes. Defeat for one side could essentially knock them out of the Eredivisie title challenge, while the victors are propelled towards another championship.