Heerenveen's new defensive starlet set to shine on the biggest stage
It should have been all about Roy Beerens, the AZ winger returning to former club Heerenveen with a point to prove, however he was left disappointed.
Holland coach Bert van Marwijk, in attendance, still left the game with a good impression. Not of Beerens, but rather of the virtuoso display of a growing hero in the Friesland province - Jeffrey Gouweleeuw.
With so many attacking options on display, it came from the area of the pitch that has often been a concern to him, making it all the more intriguing. As the game drew to a close, the defender received a standing ovation, as well as the man-of-the-match award.
Most unusual given his side won comfortably and came under minimal pressure from the oppositionÃ¢ÂÂs forwards, but in this case vindicated. This wasnÃ¢ÂÂt the first time the Heerenveen natives have sung Gouweleeuw's praises.
The 20-year-oldÃ¢ÂÂs injury time equaliser at Vitesse in October maintained their unbeaten run, which has since been extended to 12 games, equalling a club record. But it was his most recent outing, a 5-1 victory over league leaders AZ, that really had observers sitting up and taking notice.
Heerenveen stifled Gertjan VerbeekÃ¢ÂÂs sideÃ¢ÂÂs usual rhythm, not allowing them any time to breathe let alone play their game, Adam MaherÃ¢ÂÂs substitution just before half-time noted by Heerenveen coach Ron Jans as a small victory, with the visiting playmaker never getting into the game.
In his post-match press conference Verbeek analysed his sideÃ¢ÂÂs defeat in the style of a Christmas poem, growling that Santa Claus wouldnÃ¢ÂÂt understand football. One line read Ã¢ÂÂTherefore Gertjan grieve not, always say what you think, itÃ¢ÂÂs always best.Ã¢ÂÂ
This followed a curious incident a couple of days previously, when he responded angrily to being asked whether the goalless draw against MalmÃÂ¶ in the Europa League was an Ã¢ÂÂoff-dayÃ¢ÂÂ. He succinctly clarified it wasnÃ¢ÂÂt and stormed off in anger.
ItÃ¢ÂÂs perhaps too early to say whether the pressure is getting to him or if this is an act designed to deflect attention away from his team as they enter a critical period. But itÃ¢ÂÂs entertaining nonetheless.
Before kick-off Beerens was presented with flowers and a portrait of him during his time at the club. Verbeek took the time to make a beeline for Heerenveen forward Bas Dost, offering a handshake. No one will be surprised if the Dutch under-21 international is linked with a move to Alkmaar once the transfer window is reopened.
If Verbeek wasnÃ¢ÂÂt a fan before the match, by the end he would have a far better idea of exactly how dangerous he can be. Not long into the game, unmarked, Dost gave his side the lead. Jozy Altidore put AZ back on level terms after a neat one-two with Brett Holman, but it was to be the only bright spot of a largely turgid performance.
A blistering counterattack saw Rajiv van La Parra putting the hosts back infront on the half hour. Filip ÃÂuriÃÂiÃÂ and Ramon Zomer both snatched goals early in the second half, before Luciano Narsingh provided the icing on the cake by making it five late on, condemning AZ to only their second league defeat of the season.
But it was Gouweleeuw who really stood out. His run from deep in the first half resulted in an effort going a whisker over, before ÃÂuriÃÂiÃÂ and ZomerÃ¢ÂÂs goals were both wonderfully assisted by the defender: the first a lob from near the halfway line which he followed up moments later with a left footed cross from just outside the penalty area.
Ã¢ÂÂWe knew we could beat AZ, we didnÃ¢ÂÂt fear them,Ã¢ÂÂ he said after the game. Ã¢ÂÂWe started the match full of confidence and we knew we could catch them out.Ã¢ÂÂ
HeÃ¢ÂÂll blow hot and cold, given his age, how he reacts when things are not going well will be a test of character. Already heÃ¢ÂÂs fought back after losing his place in the team having suffered an injury early in the season.
Having talent alone is no guarantee of success. Playing in his role, especially at such a young age, carries great responsibility. His personality suggests he is an individual focused striving to be strong mentally as well as physically.
His technical attributes are reminiscent of Dutch defenders of yesteryear. In a recent interview he compared his style to that of Gerard PiquÃÂ©, explaining that heÃ¢ÂÂd rather his vision, skill on the ball, passing and reading of the game be recognised than his physical attributes.
Team-mate and fellow defender Michel Breuer favourably compared him to another World Cup winner. Ã¢ÂÂHe has something extra, intercepts and brings the ball out from the back like LÃÂºcio.Ã¢ÂÂ
Much has been said of the national teamÃ¢ÂÂs current crop of centre backs, with rather strong criticism following the recent humbling at the hands of Germany. A dearth of real defensive quality has seen the current incumbents Johnny Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen, though not the greatest individually, forge a competent partnership. But it is one that doesnÃ¢ÂÂt have much time left.
The emergence of Gouweleeuw, who only made his senior debut at the backend of last season, as well as ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs Jeffrey Bruma Ã¢ÂÂ currently on loan at Hamburg - and Stefan de Vrij of Feyenoord will make any transition after next summerÃ¢ÂÂs tournament smooth.
Ron Jans, while not offering to recite a poem, did wax lyrical about Gouweleeuw, labelling him Ã¢ÂÂthe star of tomorrowÃ¢ÂÂ. It may not have been the return to Heerenveen he had envisaged, but Beerens should at least take solace from the fact his countryÃ¢ÂÂs defensive future is bright.