Alkmaar's Vincent Janssen drawing Ruud van Nistelrooy comparisons
AZ Alkmaar's Vincent Janssen is fast becoming one of the hottest names in Eredivisie. With 15 league goals, he is only trailing PSV's Luuk De Jong in the scoring charts. Add three goals in Europa League and one strike in the KNVB Beker, and it's getting even more impressive.
It's giving the Dutch some hope that they have real talent coming through after their failure to qualify for Euro 2016. But while Alkmaar are reaping the rewards of showing some faith in Janssen, Feyenoord will be ruing one that got away.
In May 2013, Feyenoord's youth team clinched the title with a 4-0 win over AZ Alkmaar. That was a significant achievement, only the fifth youth tournament trophy for the Rotterdamers in two decades, and promising centre-forward Janssen played an important part in it, scoring a hat trick worthy of a seasoned penalty area predator.
Fast forward to January 2016, and Janssen was the star of the show once again as he scored a magnificent hat trick for Alkmaar against Feyenoord in Eredivisie, condemning his former club to a 4-2 defeat.
The year has started in the worst possible fashion for Feyenoord, who this month claimed the unwanted club record of seven league defeats in a row. On Sunday, a sorry 1-1 home draw with lowly Roda put an end to the incredible sequence, but they are still winless in nine games dating back to December.
On the other hand, Alkmaar are enjoying the best start imaginable to 2016, with eight consecutive wins in all competitions. Janssen, who has scored 10 goals in those fixtures, is fast making a name for himself, and pundits are starting to demand that the 21-year-old is called into the national squad.
AZ's start to the season was rather disappointing, but the turnaround began little more than a month ago when Janssen headed the winner at Roda. He was then unstoppable in the following game, against Feyenoord. His second strike, a curled shot into the far corner from a difficult angle, was absolutely breathtaking.
Such moments can do wonders for young players' self confidence, and that was clearly the case for the new Eredivisie star.
Janssen scored a brace against Cambuur, then netted the winner in the KNVB Beker against the amateurs of HHC. He went on to lob the keeper with a phenomenal deft touch to defeat Vitesse. In the past two fixtures, Vincent was the first man on target as AZ ran riot, thrashing Heracles Almelo 6-3 and beating Groningen 4-1. Overall, they have scored 23 goals in 2016, jumping from 12th place in the table to third. This is an astonishing ascent, and Janssen is at the very heart of it.
It is difficult to understand how Feyenoord could possibly have let him go in the summer of 2013. Janssen wasn't offered a contract, but the striker himself wasn't surprised, as he explained in the beginning of the current season.
"I saw that coming," he said. "I didn't have my best years at the Feyenoord youth academy.
"You should have a big mouth, and I had a problem with that in the beginning. It was a transition -- a different culture, a different environment. I needed two years to adapt."
Former Ajax goalkeeper Fred Grim, who worked as a coach at second division Almere City at the time, was surprised to see Janssen released. He had noticed the striker's talents and was quick to convince him to join his team.
"Almere are a club that has to constantly look for players who were let go by the bigger teams," Grim told ESPN FC. "I don't know why Feyenoord didn't want Vincent, but I knew that he was a very good striker. After talking to him, it was easy to understand that he is a great professional too,"
The move proved to be successful. Janssen scored 10 goals in his first season at Almere in 2013-14, and nearly doubled that tally to net 19 times last term. Grim was delighted at his progress, and didn't hesitate to predict success when AZ signed him in the summer.
"Janssen has all the right skills for centre-forward," Grim added. "He keeps the ball well with his back to the goal. He knows how to position himself. He is quick and makes the right movements. He works hard without the ball and puts a lot of pressure on the defenders.
"Importantly, he is two footed, which makes his moves in the penalty area difficult to predict -- he can go right, and he can go left. A lot of strikers can only shoot with one foot, and they are much easier to mark.
"Vincent has the right mentality. He is always willing to learn, very open and dedicated. He is an easy player to coach, because he always listens."
Vincent's background has also played a massive role in his development. His mother, Annemarie Verstappen, is a very successful former swimmer who won several medals at the 1984 Olympic Games, was also the world champion in 200 meters freestyle two years earlier, and was voted Dutch Sportswoman of the Year in 1982.
"Janssen grew up in a sport-oriented family, and therefore he knows what one has to do in order to reach the top," Grim explained. "From the very beginning, I was sure that he will go far.
"Numerous scouts visited our games to watch Vincent, not only from Holland, but also from Germany and Belgium. Eventually, he chose Alkmaar because it was the best option for him to develop.
"I know their coach, John van den Brom, personally, and he understood what kind of a player he was getting."
His first appearances in the Eredivisie were not easy, and AZ fans were at times impatient with missed chances, but Van den Brom remained confident and kept his faith in Janssen. Now that he has started scoring at will, the coach doesn't hesitate to hail his man.
"It will not surprise me if Janssen gets a call up for the national team," Van den Brom said last week.
Everybody in the Netherlands is excited. Voetbal International's Taco van den Velde wrote: "Vincent Janssen gives Holland hope again."
Ajax coach Frank de Boer is impressed as well: "He is playing fantastic football, and deserves a lot of credit. The next step could be Feyenoord, PSV or Ajax. It is becoming increasingly interesting. If Janssen can keep it up, we would be crazy to do nothing about him."
The next step is indeed the big question. Janssen has a contract with AZ until 2019, but they might not be able to hold onto him in the summer.
"It is wise not to move too fast. AZ could be tempted to sell Vincent for a lot of money, but it is also important to get the right results," says Grim, who left Almere last summer to work with the Netherlands' under-21 team. Under his guidance, Janssen scored six goals in five games in European Under-21 Championship qualifiers in the autumn.
There are a big few days coming up for AZ and Janssen. On Sunday, they play Ajax at Amsterdam Arena, and then the following Thursday visit De Kuip where Janssen will face Feyenoord again in the KNVB Beker semifinals. If he manages to score on both occasions, the whole country will go wild.
The nation wants the new generation to take over and make the national team great again. Could Janssen be the right man for the mission? Comparisons with famous strikers are being made already, and some think that he could possibly be the next Ruud van Nistelrooy.
On the other hand, it is important not to overestimate the current run of form. Only time will tell if the hopes are indeed justified.
In the meantime, keep your eyes on AZ Alkmaar. They are a great team to watch, and Janssen's remarkable rise makes them even more interesting. Feyenoord's loss is their gain.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin