De Boer's spring offensive sees Ajax march to the brink of the title
Love or hate them, Ajax are unignorable. Those who wrote them off as title challengers made one grave miscalculation. At the helm is a street fighter, the most capped outfield Dutch international, a natural born winner.
After a refreshingly competitive season, the Amsterdam giants are destined to triumph again. Even before last week's crucial midweek round Ã¢ÂÂ in which the five chasing clubs failed to win while a 5-0 cruise for Ajax at Heerenveen opened up a six-point gap Ã¢ÂÂ the 12 Eredivisie coaches not involved in the title race were asked to predict the champions: nine replied Ajax. It's a far cry from early February, when the champions lay back in sixth place.
They've marched clear of the pack thanks to Frank de BoerÃ¢ÂÂs man-management but also because their rivals have fallen by the wayside. Last Wednesday, news of PSVÃ¢ÂÂs 2-1 loss to RKC Waalwijk was greeted with euphoria at Heerenveen's Abe Lenstra stadium, not by the home fans Ã¢ÂÂ though they would remain level on points with the Eindhoven club Ã¢ÂÂ but by the visiting horde of Ajax supporters. Combined with that 5-0 win against a purported title rival, this felt like the final resistance squashed.
Defeated PSV caretaker Phillip Cocu said there would be no more talk of the championship. Feyenoord boss Ronald Koeman told the press that winning the Eredivisie was never part of the season's plan anyway. AZ coach Gertjan Verbeek insisted there was hope, although there was little left among his players and fans the following weekend when his team lost at PSV.
Twente gaffer Steve McClaren hoped for one more twist, which he got that weekend when NAC Breda's dying-seconds equaliser cost him two valuable points. Meantime Ajax were serenely defeating De Graafschap to maintain a six-point gap.
Back in early February, Ajax lost 2-0 at home to FC Utrecht the week after a 4-2 loss at a Feyenoord inspired by hat-trick scoring Manchester City loanee John Guidetti. The historic defeat to Utrecht, the first side to complete the double over Ajax in consecutive seasons, left them eight points adrift of the leaders.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, 2 Feb 2012: Klassieker victory suggests a brighter future for Feyenoord
De Boer was at the lowest ebb of his short managerial career, but instead of tearing into his players Ã¢ÂÂ criticising their profligacy in front of goal was the closest he came Ã¢ÂÂ he calmly outlined a simple mission: not to drop any more points until the end of the season. The gauntlet was thrown down Ã¢ÂÂ and immediately picked up by the Ajax players.
Defender Jan Vertonghen has set the standard, wearing his heart on his sleeve right next to his captain's armband. Vurnon AnitaÃ¢ÂÂs return to midfield has allowed better synergy, eradicating the disjointedness that plagued De BoerÃ¢ÂÂs team in the first half of the season. And with the pressure on others above them, everything else began to fall into place.
Marching on together: Ajax in February
One by one, FC Twente, PSV and AZ would be proclaimed favourites. PSV looked unbeatable at home Ã¢ÂÂ until FC Twente arrived and put six past them. That brought forward Fred Rutten's planned summer exit and hastened Cocu's arrival; despite winning the KNVB Cup, the Eindhoven club still look shaky, having had a torrid year.
AZ, who defined inconsistency last season, kept picking up wins until the toll of playing in three competitions took its effect. Verbeek would tell you his side donÃ¢ÂÂt look tired but thatÃ¢ÂÂs not the impression theyÃ¢ÂÂre giving. McClarenÃ¢ÂÂs Twente should have kicked on after their rout in Eindhoven, but stagnated as the English manager tried to learn about a squad running out of steam.
Meanwhile Feyenoord and Heerenveen were stuttering as much as winning. Both Ronald Koeman and Ron Jans (who will be replaced in summer by Marco van Basten) have done very well this season; both clubs should finish well, but the shortcomings of last season in either side havenÃ¢ÂÂt been totally relinquished, nevertheless a successful campaign.
As the others faltered, Ajax just kept winning, rewarding De BoerÃ¢ÂÂs defiance after that fourth defeat of the season to Utrecht. One victory turned into four consecutive wins; it became eight on April Fool's Day as the side went top with a 6-0 demolition of midtable Heracles while AZ were being held by Vitesse.
The 5-0 win at Heerenveen was Ajax's ninth successive win, while the routine 3-1 home win against De Graafschap made it 10. TheyÃ¢ÂÂve accumulated 35 goals, scored by 13 different players, conceding just four in the run. A team that had trailed by 11 points in November now lead the league by six.
A few weeks ago, the six-team title race gripped the nation; now it seems a procession for Ajax. The new battleground is for second: a point separates five teams, all eager for taste of Champions League football.
HALF-TIME ORANJE, 24 Feb 2012: Five points between the top six: the best title race ever?
None of those five teams had an answer to AjaxÃ¢ÂÂs improbable resurgence, which has outstripped all rivals. In the same 10-game period, Feyenoord and Heerenveen have mustered the most wins (six), Twente have scored the most (21) and Feyenoord have conceded the fewest (seven) Ã¢ÂÂ but the stats aren't in same league.
Ajax have simply followed Rudyard Kipling's advice: Ã¢ÂÂKeep your head when all about you are losing theirs.Ã¢ÂÂ The Amsterdam giants have an essence of renewal and vigour thereÃ¢ÂÂs swagger and calmness in their football. By contrast, you get the impression that their rivals' energy is being sapped by each passing week: May canÃ¢ÂÂt come quick enough.
With four games remaining, the mayor of Amsterdam has advised citizens to start planning the celebration of the 31st championship. De Boer would be quick to warn him against complacency, but he knows deep down that momentum is with them and acknowledges them as Ã¢ÂÂhot favouritesÃ¢ÂÂ. Having led Ajax to last season's title after taking over in December, De Boer is again proving himself capable of overcoming the opposition in the second half of the campaign. The natural born winner will surely triumph again.