PSV and Twente prepare to do battle as title race hots up

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Dutch football blogger Mohamed Moallim makes his debut by looking ahead to this weekend's top-of-the-table clash in the Eredivisie

With only a point separating the Eredivisie’s current top two - FC Twente and PSV Eindhoven – as the pair prepare to lock horns at De Grolsch Veste on Saturday evening, both sides know a win could swing the title pendulum in their favour as the season enters its final stages.

The two sides share a single ambition this season, but for different reasons: the reigning champions FC Twente do not want to be seen as a flash in the pan (like AZ Alkmaar before them) and PSV want to return to the summit of Dutch football after two seasons watching from the sidelines, their crown usurped.

So far so good for Twente. The side from Enschede - a city in the eastern province of Overijssel, known for holding the second oldest marathon in Europe - have risen to the challenge of defending their title, which began modestly after losing the likes of Ronnie Stam, Blaise Nkufo, Kenneth Perez, Cheick Tioté and Marko Arnautović in the summer.

However they did bolster the squad that remained, adding Denny Landzaat, Roberto Rosales, Nacer Chadli and Marc Janko to support the likes of Theo Janssen and Luuk de Jong, who have come to embody the team.

Another departure was of course the man who led them to their first league title, Steve McClaren, who decided to try his luck in the Bundesliga rather than defend his title. He was replaced by Belgian coach Michel Preud’homme, who previously managed Standard Liège and Gent in his homeland.

Preud’homme has brought more attacking impetuous to the team and as things stand they only need nine goals to equal last season’s league total. There also seems to be a new-found flexibility in the team, with Twente still chasing a historic treble, having reached the domestic cup final and the quarterfinals of the Europa League.

McClaren and his Twente team schelebra...sorry, celebrate their title win

As for PSV, they’re not been accustomed to be on the outside looking in – particularly over the last decade. Prior to AZ Alkmaar’s triumph in 2009, the previous four titles had all headed to Eindhoven.

Fred Rutten - assistant manager during Guus Hiddink’s highly successful spell at the club from 2002 to 2006 - took the reins that summer, and made a tentative start to life in the Philips Stadion hot seat – finishing third in his first season.

This season it’s been nothing but aggressive intent – PSV are not only the league’s top goal scorers with 72 and counting, they also have the joint best defence.

Without question their most potent performance was their 10-0 demolition of Feyenoord back in October, a win that sent out a warning to the rest of the division.

Both teams go into Saturday’s game on the back of recent good runs of form, each winning four times in their last six league games. Although FC Twente lost away to AZ Alkmaar during that period, they made up for it by winning their next three on the spin, conceding just once.

The game should also see some of the bright stars of Dutch football taking to the field. For the home side, the partnership of Luuk de Jong and Theo Janssen has only grown stronger and stronger, with the pair responsible for a large portion of Twente’s goals - be it by scoring or creating them.

Alongside them is possibly the Eredivisie signing of the season - Nacer Chadli, who was plucked from second division side AGOVV last summer.

Chadli and Dzsudzsák will be among the stars on show on Saturday

The impressive 21-year-old Belgian winger’s seven league goals – one of them the only goal in Twente’s win in Eindhoven earlier in the season – and an array of mercurial performances have caught the eye of many of Europe’s top clubs.

As for the Eindhoven club, they probably have the player of the season in Balázs Dzsudzsák, who was initially a doubt for Saturday’s clash having picked up a rib injury in Hungary’s 4-0 defeat to the Netherlands last Friday, but shook it off in time to play in the return fixture in Amsterdam on Tuesday.

The 24-year-old winger has already 15 goals in the league, one more than his personal best of last season. His form, especially in recent weeks, has been highly impressive and it seems as though whenever PSV are in trouble he’ll be able to bail them out.

Following closely behind him on 13 goals is Ola Toivonen. The Swedish attacker has proven that not every player is struck down by ‘second season syndrome’, continuing the same good form that made him an instant hit after arriving from Malmö FF in the summer of 2009 for a fee of around €4.5 million.

Yet in a week where he’s received a four match ban from the Dutch FA after an altercation (and that’s putting it politely) with a referee in a friendly game last week, his temperament is still questionable.

Fortunately for Rutten, the ban only applies to friendly games so he can still feature in PSV’s league fixtures. Unluckily for Rutten, Toivonen tore his hamstring in training with Wednesday meaning he’ll be out of Saturday’s match – and maybe more than three afterwards…

One player who could have an impact is 23-year-old forward Jeremain Lens, who has hit the ground running in his début season at the club, with the potential he displayed during his time with AZ fast turning into the real thing at PSV.

In a move that underlines exactly how seriously PSV are treating the game, Rutten has decided Friday’s training season – which is normally open to the public – will take part behind closed doors.

To avenge their early season defeat (above), PSV will need to do something they haven’t done in six years - win in Enschede. Their last victory in 2005 came courtesy of a goal from their ex-captain and now-Barcelona player Ibrahim Afellay (below).

However, if the run of draws between the sides at De Grolsch Veste continues (the last three meetings have been 1-1, 1-1 and 0-0) then this could open the door for Ajax to possibly resurrect their faltering league ambitions, with the gap down to four points.

But in all probability it will be seven years without being crowned champions for the Amsterdam outfit - their longest run without a title since the 1960’s - and with a boardroom revolution rumbling on in the background there could be yet more uncertain times ahead for one the giants of Dutch football.

This weekend Ajax host one of the surprise packages of the season - Heracles Almelo. With four straight wins and 20 goals scored in their last six, they could very well fancy their chances against an Ajax side still without first choice keeper Maarten Stekelenburg – out with a broken thumb - and one half of their first choice centre-back partnership in Toby Alderweireld – unlikely to feature too heavily in the battle for the Europa League playoff spots having been ruled out for six weeks with a hamstring injury earlier this week.

AZ Alkmaar - currently in fourth place - travel to De Kuip to face a resurgent Feyenoord side who many thought would be more likely to be contesting a relegation battle, given their awful early-season  form.

Despite a 3-0 loss away to Roda JC before the international break, Feyenoord have picked up since late February, with youngsters Georginio Wijnaldum, Luc Castaignos and Arsenal loanee Ryo Miyaichi all coming to the fore.

And just behind AZ in fifth are ADO Den Haag - another of the season’s surprise packages - will visit FC Utrecht, who have fallen by the wayside after a promising start to the season, but still can reach the play-off spots.

It’s a far cry from the business end of recent seasons for Den Haag, who are more used to being involved in relegation battles than pushes for Europe. The work of coach John van den Brom in his first season at the Kyocera Stadion is certainly worthy of the manager of the season accolade.