Dutch title race heads for final-day showdown
So it comes down to this. With two games left, the possibility of the Dutch league title being decided on the final day is well and truly on. ItÃ¢ÂÂs what the neutrals wanted Ã¢ÂÂ and most definitely what the TV folks wanted Ã¢ÂÂ but thereÃ¢ÂÂs still one more obstacle to overcome until we have a final-day drama like in 2007.
Going into the final day of the 2006/07 season, the top three were locked on 72 points. AZ Alkmaar's goal difference kept them clear of Ajax (+47) and PSV (+46). For Louis van Gaal's side it was simple: win and they would be crowned champions for the first time since 1981.
AZ travelled to face relegation-threatened Excelsior Rotterdam, Ajax were at Willem II and PSV entertained Vitesse. Ajax won 2-0, but AZ lost 3-2 Ã¢ÂÂ a 90th-minute winner from Johan Voskamp shattering a season's hard work.
In the end it was PSV that were crowned champions Ã¢ÂÂ by a solitary goal, thanks to skipper Philip Cocu completing their 5-1 rout 13 minutes from time. To AZ's credit, that last-day drama and disappointment didnÃ¢ÂÂt depress them Ã¢ÂÂ they would become champions two years later.
Fast forward to 2011 and there's still the possibility of replicating that three-way final-day decider Ã¢ÂÂ although the likelihood has been reduced by Feyenoord gaining some sweet revenge over PSV with a 3-1 win that may have ended the Eindhoven side's hopes of a first title in three seasons.
Last October's 10-0 humiliation at the Philips Stadion was the heaviest in Feyenoord's history and head coach Mario Been said it would live with him for the rest of his life. In truth, it could have seen him sacked from the job a year in. But such has been the clubÃ¢ÂÂs resurgence since that, going into the game, you felt the gods were on their side.
In great contrast to the gloomy images that befell the Rotterdam side after their last-minute defeat at the hands of De Graafschap in late January, that evening's tormented soul Georginio Wijnaldum capped off a man of the match performance that surely would alert potential suitors: Liverpool, Chelsea, AC Milan and Real Madrid have all been linked with the 20-year-old playmaker.
Before the game there was a moment's silence in tribute to the passing of one of the club's greatest managers, Wiel Coerver. Although best remembered worldwide for the revolutionary youth training methods which now bear his surname, in Rotterdam he is remembered as the man who guided Feyenoord to their first UEFA Cup in 1974.
Coerver more than anyone would have been pleased to see FeyenoordÃ¢ÂÂs youngsters shining against PSV. Wijnaldum took the plaudits for his brace Ã¢ÂÂ two expertly taken headers that Ruud Gullit would have been proud of, from two beautiful crosses from Diego Biseswar. It was Leroy Fer in the heart of midfield that Been praised after the game, while Ryo Miyaichi Ã¢ÂÂ whose appearance most probably prompted FeyenoordÃ¢ÂÂs recent renaissance Ã¢ÂÂ was again a nuisance, as PSV did not know how to handle him.
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The away side's frustration came to a boiling point when captain Oranldo Engelaar was shown a straight red after a dangerous two-footed tackle on Luc Castaignos Ã¢ÂÂ though moments later they did pull a goal back through Ola Toinoven. But it was Castaignos who got the last laugh and continued his impressive recent goal scoring form. How Feyenoord fans will miss him when he leaves for Inter in the summer, before they really got to know him.
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The exuberance was seeping out of Been after the game, as a traumatic experience was laid to rest. Ã¢ÂÂWe outplayed PSV in every area of the game,Ã¢ÂÂ he said Ã¢ÂÂ and despite PSV ending the game a man down, no one could take the impressive win away from him and his side.
They say revenge is a dish best served cold, and all those months he must have plotted for this moment and he pulled it off in a performance that bodes well for their remaining two games and the possibility of sneaking into a Europa League play-off spot (they're only a point behind the eighth position which would get them in the play-offs).
In the medium term it remains to be seen how they will cope with the departures of Miyaichi, Castaignos and possibly Wijnaldum in the summer Ã¢ÂÂ althoug course thereÃ¢ÂÂs the possibility of all three staying if Arsenal will lend them the Japanese speedster again and Inter loan back their new striker to gain more experience.
PSV's loss was Ajax's gain, the Amsterdam side moving into second spot and keeping a point behind FC Twente. The leaders had done their bit on Good Friday, overcoming a dogged Den Haag side 2-1 Ã¢ÂÂ and at one stage on the Sunday afternoon, Twente coach Michel Preud'homme must have thought this could be his weekend: as the Ajax-Excelsior and Feyenoord-PSV games reached the hour mark, they were both level at 1-1.
Ajax had taken a first-half lead through Lorenzo Ebecilo and seemed to be coasting to a 20th league win, but early in second half a spanner was thrown into the works. Frank de Boer knew that his side had been lucky lately to stay in the hunt for their 30th championship (the last coming in 2003/04) Ã¢ÂÂ and they slipped up again, allowing Daan Bovenberg to equalise.
A sudden hush fell over the Amsterdam Arena, in complete contrast to the massive roars which had greeted FeyenoordÃ¢ÂÂs opener Ã¢ÂÂ which was shown on the screens in the stadium, enraging the Dutch FA and visitors Excelsior.
At that moment, Twente were three points ahead of both their title rivals and it felt like that equaliser knocked the stuffing right out of Ajax, but a stroke of fortune put paid to that. Gregory van der Wiel, whose future has been questioned, looked offside but his pass fell to the mercurial Christian Eriksen who bungled the ball home on his second attempt and restored AjaxÃ¢ÂÂs lead for good.
The home side added two more, two more beautifully taken goals Ã¢ÂÂ Ebecilio poking home the second and AjaxÃ¢ÂÂs third, created by the brilliant vision of Miralem Sulejmani. The Serbian, surplus to requirements under Martin Jol, has thrived under De Boer. Even better was the final goal: Siem de Jong's breathtaking bicycle kick might even rival the great Marco van BastenÃ¢ÂÂs famous efforts. OK, maybe not.
After the game Frank de Boer Ã¢ÂÂ tongue firmly in cheek Ã¢ÂÂ thanked Feyenoord for their victory over PSV, with a simple Ã¢ÂÂthank you MarioÃ¢ÂÂ to the camera. In more serious mode, he went on to speak of the importance of staying focused: Ã¢ÂÂWe have fully regained the initiative. We will have only ourselves to blame if things go wrong.Ã¢ÂÂ
If Ajax and Twente both win their games this Sunday (at Heerenveen and at home to Willem II respectively), the title will be decided on the final dayÃ¢ÂÂ¦ when the two teams meet at the Amsterdam Arena. And before that both sides will meet in the Dutch Cup final in Rotterdam on May 8.
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With the league seemingly lost, whatÃ¢ÂÂs left for PSV is finishing second (with its coveted Champions League spot), something they will attain if they win their next two games Ã¢ÂÂ meaning the loser on the final day between Ajax and Twente will most certainly drop to the Europa League. It most certainly is squeaky bum time.
RESULTS Fri 22 Apr ADO Den Haag 1-2 Twente Sat 23 Apr Willem II 2-1 AZ, Heracles 2-0 De Graafschap, Roda JC 5-1 NAC Breda, VVV 2-2 Heerenveen Sun 24 Apr Ajax 4-1 Excelsior, Utrecht 4-2 Vitesse, Feyenoord 3-1 PSV, Groningen 3-1 NEC