Ajax v Feyenoord: Van Bronckhorst's men out to end 18-year title drought

By Stefan Coerts 31 March 2017
Ajax v Feyenoord: Van Bronckhorst's men out to end 18-year title drought

When Feyenoord were last crowned Eredivisie champions on April 25, 1999, the people in Netherlands were still paying with Dutch guilders rather than the Euro, the Vengaboys were dominating the domestic hit charts and few people had heard of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo outside of Newell's Old Boys and Sporting CP respectively. 

It has indeed been a long time since the Rotterdammers last won the Dutch title. 

With Julio Cruz and Jon Dahl Tomasson banging in the goals up front, Jean-Paul van Gastel and Paul Bosvelt pulling the strings in midfield and Bert Konterman and Kees van Wonderen holding the fort at the back, Feyenoord proved to be much too strong for their traditional rivals Ajax and PSV, with Willem II eventually finishing second 15 points behind head coach Leo Beenhakker's men.

Little will they have known at the time, however, that would mark the start of a remarkable title drought.

There was the UEFA Cup win 2002 that gave them reason to celebrate, along with KNVB Beker glory in 2008 and 2016, but the Eredivisie title has evaded Feyenoord ever since that impressive run at the end of the 20th century. 

In fact, whereas relatively small teams such as AZ and Twente have enjoyed Eredivisie success this millennium, Feyenoord have mainly gone from one disappointment to the other. 

Financial difficulties prevented them from mounting a genuine title challenge between 2006-07 and 2010-11 as they finished outside the top three for five consecutive seasons, with the 2010-11 campaign one of the undisputed lows in their history as they failed to make the top 10 for only the fourth time since the start of the Eredivisie in 1956-57. 

Even worse than their 10th-placed finish was the result of the away game against PSV on October 24, 2010; a humiliating 10-0 defeat that stands as the biggest loss in Feyenoord history.

Their resurgence started the following season as Ronald Koeman guided a young team built around homegrown players such as Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Kelvin Leerdam and Jordy Clasie to second place in the table. 

The club's policy to put their faith in promising youngsters has seen them go from strength to strength in recent years, with their improved financial situation allowing them to bring in seasoned professionals such as Dirk Kuyt and Karim El Ahmadi to show younger team-mates Terence Kongolo, Rick Karsdorp and Tonny Vilhena the way.

Add hungry new signings like Nicolai Jorgensen and Steven Berghuis to the mix and Feyenoord, all of a sudden, are the team to beat in the race for the Eredivisie title.

Giovanni van Bronckhorst's men started the season with nine consecutive wins to open up a healthy lead over Ajax and PSV, before going three games without victory - including a shock defeat against minnows Go Ahead Eagles.

But that brief slump did not throw them off their game and Feyenoord now find themselves six points clear of second-placed Ajax heading into Sunday's encounter in Amsterdam.

The one player who embodies Feyenoord's success more than anyone else is Jorgensen, who not only tops the goalscoring charts with 19 strikes, but has also created 10 goals. The 26-year-old Denmark international previously endured a disappointing spell abroad with Bayer Leverkusen, but is now showing what he is capable of at Feyenoord, having rediscovered his best form at Copenhagen over the past four seasons.

Jorgensen has even managed to outshine the iconic Kuyt, who returned to Feyenoord in 2015 with Eredivisie glory as his sole objective. The veteran attacker might no longer be an undisputed starter, but still remains a key figure at De Kuip and winning the title would be a perfect end to an impressive career.

The one club who can still prevent that, however, is Ajax.

The Amsterdammers are the Eredivisie's most successful team with 33 titles and head coach Peter Bosz refuses to give up hope of making it 34 this term, even if he realises they face a tough task to catch Feyenoord with just seven games to go.

"Six points is a big gap, especially at this stage of the season, but we will not throw in the towel," he said after Ajax's 1-1 draw with Excelsior.

"We have to beat Feyenoord in the Arena and narrow the gap to three points." 

In order to achieve that, Ajax are very much relying on youth. Centre-back Matthijs de Ligt - now bearing the scars of a chastening Netherlands debut in Bulgaria - and winger Justin Kluivert were not born when Feyenoord won their last Eredivisie title, while star striker Kasper Dolberg is also still a teenager. Defender Nick Viergever and midfielder Lasse Schone are the only two first-team regulars older than 25. 

Ajax's lack of experience is not their only potential problem as they chase the Eredivisie title, though, as they still find themselves challenging for Europa League glory. The important trip to PSV in April - which could be crucial in the title race if they do narrow the gap to three points on Sunday - comes just three days after what promises to be an intense quarter-final at Schalke.

Feyenoord will therefore fancy their chances of ending their title drought at last - even if they do slip up at the Amsterdam Arena.

 

THE COOLSINGEL ON HIGH ALERT: PARTY LIKE IT'S 1999

Here are some of the stats behind their recent meetings. Although they make for poor reading for the visitors, they certainly point to an exciting 90 minutes.

1999 - Feyenoord last celebrated the Eredivisie title at Rotterdam's Coolsingel in 1999.

6 - Ajax have won six Eredivisie titles since Feyenoord were last crowned champions.

68 - Feyenoord have already scored 68 times this Eredivisie campaign, at least 12 more than any other team.

2 - Both Feyenoord and Ajax have lost a mere two league games this season.

19 - Jorgensen tops the Eredivisie goal scoring charts with 19 strikes, four more than Heerenveen striker Reza Ghoochannejhad and six clear of Ajax's Dolberg.

11 - No player has as many assists as Ajax playmaker Hakim Ziyech.

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Stefan Coerts

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