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Mar 13, 2012

Flavour of the month

The rollercoaster Eredivisie season claimed its first victim among the newly-established top six when Fred Rutten was sacked as head coach of PSV on Monday. This, mind you, is only two weeks after their nippy winger Dries Mertens spoke of a "title-winning victory" in his interview following the 3-2 win over Feyenoord. As a result of that success, PSV had taken the lead in the Eredivisie and also unexpectedly knocked Trabzonspor out of the Europa League. Rutten at last seemed en route to the title in his third season in charge.

The next week, PSV suffered the biggest home defeat in their league history, a 6-2 loss versus rivals FC Twente, followed by a hiding in the Europa League despite Valencia starting only four of their star players. A miserable week was compounded in Breda on Sunday. An early lead squandered and a missed sitter by Georginio Wijnaldum that would have provided an equaliser were capped by a suicidal free-kick close to half-time. Instead of hoofing the ball into the box from the halfway line, it was passed backwards; NAC intercepted and a few seconds later wing-back Manolov conceded his second yellow. There the lights went out on Rutten's career at PSV.

Yet Mertens' extreme optimism following the 3-2 win against Feyenoord was not without foundation. Feyenoord had beaten PSV, FC Twente and Ajax at De Kuip and seemed destined for top spot the week before - at least after 77 minutes of their home game against RKC Waalwijk. After a bright start to 2012, Ronald Koeman's men were struggling to find an opening that night, but then they got a penalty and saw newly-crowned hero John Guidetti put them 1-0 up. Surely the small-town opponents on their shoestring budget were beaten by now, as three points looked to be in the bag.

However, Manchester City loanee Guidetti decided to celebrate by taking off his shirt, leading to a second yellow card seconds later. The ten players remaining could not hold onto the lead and Feyenoord went on to lose the following week's crucial encounter with PSV, who were without their lynchpin. This weekend, they were lucky to hold onto a draw at home to FC Utrecht and have lost two key players to suspension for next week's crunch game at FC Twente. Who needs competition when you can kill your own title aspirations so efficiently? That said, Feyenoord will be more than satisfied that they have at least returned to the top six, after years of mid-table hardship.

Of FC Twente, the returned Steve McClaren has helped oversee title-challenging form in the first months of this year. Indeed, the short Co Adriaanse era from summer to the winter of 2011 has swiftly been forgotten. They have only lost the regional derby against Heracles Almelo at home, despite the fact their opponents had beaten hardly anyone higher positioned than 14th at that point - it proved to be just one of those days. On their travels, Twente trampled high-flying Vitesse 4-1 first, then buried PSV in the aforementioned game and last week outplayed Schalke 04 in the Europa League at Grolsch Veste.

The sale of top-scoring striker Marc Janko has created space for midfielder Willem Janssen, which has made the team more balanced. Then, against PSV, Brazilian-Dutch defender Douglas kicked Ola Toivonen in the leg for no apparent reason. His red card had no effect on the game in Eindhoven, but without him last weekend in de Goffert Stadium, Twente were torn to pieces as they could never control NEC striker Gennaro Zeefuik. To add insult to injury, Twente were the first side to concede a goal against Zeefuik after 20 games without scoring. They were lucky to get away with a 3-1 defeat against the team that could not score this season even if their lives depended on it. Twente are now only four points behind AZ with one game in hand, but McClaren will be frightened by what he witnessed in Nijmegen.

They were overtaken this weekend by Ajax, who seemed to have left the title race at the start of February. Having lost at home to FC Utrecht, whose only two victories since early October have - amazingly - been against Ajax, the gap between them and first place had grown to eight points. Yet after five consecutive wins they have returned to the realms of favourites for the title, quietly thanking the competition for all their mistakes in recent weeks. Frank de Boer's squad remains depleted by an avalanche of muscle injuries, mostly inflicted by the intensity of their training programmes.

Even further down the table are Heerenveen. They were seventh at Christmas, ten points behind leaders AZ, even after a humiliating 5-1 loss at their Abe Lenstra Stadium to PSV. With the knowledge that star winger Oussama Assaidi was called up to play for Morocco in the African Nations Cup, their season was set for mid-table mediocrity. Then former youth international Rajiv Van La Parre, returning from French Ligue 2 side Caen in the summer, replaced Assaidi and Heerenveen have not lost since, being by far the most consistent team in 2012. Suddenly, they too are in the title race.

Recently, the Frisians almost won away against the current leaders AZ, who have played some of the best football in the Eredivisie. The departure of key midfielder Pontus Wernbloom to CSKA Moscow was soon forgotten when Maarten Martens returned from injury. His incisive runs in the box have helped AZ not only to the top of the league, but also to the semi-finals of the KNVB Beker as well as a favourable position in their tie with Udinese in the Europa League.

PSV and FC Twente are the other clubs with an eye on a European quarter-final. They managed this feat last year, but the strain of so many games was detrimental to their title chances. Again, Ajax are the only contenders who can concentrate on the league. However, in this Eredivisie season, fates change every weekend as today's top guns will be next week's cannon fodder.

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