Aggro, attacking football and a six-way title race: the best league in Europe returns

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The wait has felt long and strenuous: Euro 2012 ended in disaster and pre-season hasn’t exactly filled the void. But this weekend the Dutch season returns – hopefully, continuing where it left off.

The Eredivisie's 56th season, which ended in May, was critically acclaimed. What the show lacks in extravagant production and A-list superstars was more than made up in its unique brand of drama. Dutch fans witnessed Europe's closest title race, with six teams separated by as little as four points.

The openness of the championship chase was no surprise, given that the last few years have seen a significant narrowing of the distance between the traditional powers and provincial sides. The Dutch league is as competitive as it is unpredictable. And this Sunday brings its traditional curtain-raiser.

The Johan Cruijff Schaal [Shield] is fought for by the champions and cup winners – this year, Ajax and PSV. Games between these giants have always been made even more enjoyable by the clash of contrasting styles and identities. Their battles have often chosen champions and decided dynasties - and there's no love lost.

PSV: the eternal outsiders
have cultivated the siege mentality of outsiders: they feel that the successes they have compiled – and they were champions seven times in the first nine seasons of this century – haven't received the credit they deserve. In part, this exclusion is geographical: Eindhoven lies outside the Randstad conurbation which dominates the Netherlands by combining the country's four major cities and almost half the Dutch population.

Still, they beat Ajax to the signature of Heerenveen's highly coveted young Oranje winger Luciano Narsingh. They have also strengthened their already formidable squad by adding Danish centre-back Mathias “Zanka” Jørgensen and bringing back Mark van Bommel, subsequently made captain.

He's not the only familiar face returning to Eindhoven. Four championship-free years have prompted drastic measures: the appointment of Dick Advocaat, who led PSV to the title in 1997. His return has got many believing – unlike last season – that they can go the distance and reclaim the title: he knows the club like the back of his hand, and is unfazed by any expectation, whether created internally or externally. His single-minded drive and tactical versatility might just prove the difference.

Ajax: rejuvenating again
That said, it’s a gamble, and it won’t be easy against a formidable foe in Ajax and Frank de Boer. A veteran of the wars between Ajax and PSV during Advocaat’s first Eindhoven term in the 1990s, De Boer is now a fellow general – and a successful one. In his 18 months leading Ajax, De Boer has not only won back-to-back championships but also established himself as one of European football’s most exciting young coaches and an emerging brilliant mind.

His steadfast belief in the Ajax school – implemented by Jack Reynolds, refined by Vic Buckingham, enhanced by Rinus Michels and modernised by Johan Cruyff and Louis van Gaal – has transformed a club previously on a road to nowhere. The Amsterdammers now play breathtaking football in a spirit worthy of their founding fathers.

Jan Vertonghen’s departure to Tottenham has left a gaping hole in defence, but as is the Ajax way, De Boer is banking on the system more than the personnel. No.10 Siem de Jong has replaced Vertonghen as captain, but there has been no big signing to replace the Belgian at the back: Ajax will continue to bring through promising youngsters.

Also competing: Koeman, Verbeek and Shteve
While it's true that Ajax and PSV are the main contenders, the league’s competiveness has ensured that a duopoly is a thing of the past. If those two don't keep the pace, there are several challengers capable of capitalising.

Feyenoord spilt the two last season, ending half a decade of underachievement by finishing runners-up to the surprise of everyone – except coach Ronald Koeman. There’s a sense of resurrection in Rotterdam; like PSV they’ve acquired well during the summer – in their case, partly out of necessity through key departures – as a result Koeman is as confident as ever. “There's more,” he told Voetbal International. “If we manage to create the same feeling again, the new Feyenoord needs not be afraid of anyone.”

If that might mean the return of the ‘big three’ – last season was the first time in eight years that Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV have filled the top three – then standing in the way of the old order are AZ and FC Twente. Champions in 2009 and 2010 respectively, they have continued since to fight for the title.

Last season was the first championship challenge for AZ's eccentric manager Gertjan Verbeek, but this term he wants to triumph. Although his outspoken nature turns him into a pantomime villain, his brash and determined demeanour has made him the league's breakout character. Even he needn't hype an opening-weekend trip to Ajax, but his recent clear contempt for that outfit – to the point of straining relations between the clubs – has made it the opening weekend's must-watch match.

Steve McClaren, the only non-Dutch coach in the league, knows what it takes to win the league – and he's now back where he won it, at Twente. Although the Enschede outfit have lost Luuk de Jong to Borussia Moenchengladbach, he has been adequately replaced by former Feyenoord striker Luc Castaignos, returning to the league after a forgettable year at Inter Milan. Twente have a still possess a creative attack that makes them worthy contenders.

Bubbling under: Managers making merry
Below those five, the interest surrounds managers: returning figures like Marco van Basten, Fred Rutten and Erwin Koeman, plus emerging names like Ruud Brood, Art Langeler, Alex Pastoor and Robert Maaskant.

Van Basten's Heerenveen and Rutten's Vitesse are the most likely to fight for sixth place, although neither is aiming to stop there. Ambitious off the pitch, both clubs have players of rich potential who adhere to a blueprint of attacking and compulsive football.

“I was convinced to take the job after watching the club’s ambition,” Rutten said on arriving at Vitesse to replace John van den Brom, now at Anderlecht. “It is a beautiful club with many promising youngsters, who can certainly shine at the highest level.”

The same applies to NEC – if they can stay consistent. Derided as smug, coach Alex Pastoor has turned the critics' term ‘smartass’ into a badge of honour. His confidence in his convictions might rub others up the wrong way, but the second half of last season showed his potential: he took NEC to within a hair's breadth of Europa League football in the play-offs.

Having guided PEC Zwolle to the second-tier title last season, Art Langeler is another young coach destined for big things. He shouldn't feel inhibited: Ruud Brood proved last year at RKC Waalwijk that being at an unfashionable club needn’t limit your ambition. Industrious with strong ethics, Brood guided the side from Holland’s shoemaking capital to the brink of Europa League football. Brood has moved to Roda JC, who finished a point short of the play-offs, and has been replaced at RKC by Erwin Koeman; let's hope he sticks around long enough to take on his younger brother and in turn restore a damaged reputation.

Another beauty of the Eredivisie is that fans usually get their money's worth because every side propagates attacking football – some are just better at it. FC Utrecht and Heracles were inconsistent last season but never lacked adventure; Jan Wouters, entering his first full campaign at Utrecht, and Heracles' Peter Bosz know no other way.

Another club to keep an eye on is FC Groningen. Having sacked Pieter Huistra for gaining only three wins from his last 17 games, they have appointed Robert Maaskant; although he has spent two years outside Holland, his previous spell with NAC Breda was successful.

Breda themselves aren't in the greatest of shape, finishing 13th last season. Their coach John Karelse knows he has a battle ahead. The same applies for VVV under Ton Lokhoff, one of eight former Dutch internationals coaching in the league; Den Haag; and newly promoted side Willem II, back up after spending a season in the second tier.

Throughout the country there’s great expectation ahead of the new season. It has all the ingredients for a spectacular and highly engrossing drama – just like its predecessor.