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Apr 19, 2006

Everything to play-off for

After their worst season for over 40 years Ajax are still within a shout of Champions League football, thanks to a commercial novelty: the play-offs.

At the start of the season Danny Blind belonged to the group of coaches that opposed the new system, as the runner-up in the league could miss out on the holy grail of Champions League football, while the number five might sneak in.

As the season progressed and the four times European Cup winners lost sight of the top three - PSV, Feyenoord and AZ - as early as November, Blind could only thank the gods for the loophole the season end provides. And now he is looking forward to this football extravaganza, which might save his job.

The league in Holland has finished and now the show starts with only four teams having nothing to play for. PSV strolled to the title while at the bottom club RBC Roosendaal recorded the worst season in top flight history. Their highlights were a draw with Feyenoord and an exclusive victory, over NEC in the only other game in which they managed to score more than once.

Sparta Rotterdam and ADO Den Haag escaped the relegation play-offs as 14th and 15th and have to wait four months for their next official kick-off. All the others are still involved in some sort of play-off, varying from the crucial, a ticket to the third qualification round of the Champions League, to the ludicrous - intertoto football.

Clubs recently would not touch that competition with a bargepole, now the league numbers ten to thirteen are forced to compete for it. The winner meets a loser from another play-off, eventually resulting in one lucky club to meet the likes of FC Kalmar or Haka Valkeakosken smack in the middle of summer at the start of an epic run to a UEFA Cup ticket.

It's a marketing dream for the teams who had their season totter to an end and a nightmare for those who saw it explode right in their faces in injury time during the final league games on Easter Sunday.

And then there is a play-off competition going for those from nine to five. These four teams, FC Twente, Roda JC, Heerenveen and FC Utrecht, will fight for one genuine place in the UEFA Cup. This competition became a goal in itself for most clubs, aware of their perennial position under the four top teams in the league. Although AZ only recently made a successful jump to make the Dutch top three a top four, others can't find the ambition to follow them.

The 'linkerrijtje' is good enough for them. 'Linkerrijtje', or the leftrow, is a highly significant term in the Dutch league which reared its funny head sometime in the 70s or 80s, when the football highlights TV show Studio Sport split the table on the screen with the top half of the table on the left and the others on the right.

Now all the teams in the 'linkerrijtje' qualify for the play-off. FC Twente equalized in the closing minutes in their home game against FC Groningen and pipped NEC, who conceded a decisive goal almost at the same time, in ninth spot. These four take each other on in European Cup style and the winner eventually travels into Europe next season.

Dutch football is obsessed by extra competitions. It appears that simply playing to win and enjoying football is unacceptable.

When the second division dissolved in 1971 and there were only two leagues left in a closed-shop system, it took the Dutch FA only a year to come up with a plan 'to save football'. The first division season was divided in four stints of eight or nine games, resulting in four 'periode champions' who played in a competition at the end of the season for promotion to accompany the champion to the Eredivisie.

Dutch football is obsessed by extra competitions. It appears that simply playing to win and enjoying football is unacceptable.

Over the years four participants became six, than eight and now no less than 10 clubs are playing for two spots in the Eredivisie in the weeks to come. Willem II and NAC Breda are defending their castles as the numbers 16 and 17 of the top flight against eight invading first division teams.

Some of them are winners of one 'period' of just six games, while lingering on during the remaining 32. Once the system allowed fourth-from-bottom Heerenveen to go up, having won only fifteen of their 42 games over the whole of the season.

All these play-offs are just sideshows to the Big Kahuna between the big guns. To the thrill of every football fan and the horror of any law enforcer Ajax and Feyenoord meet each other in the first round. The biggest fixture in Holland with a history of top entertainment on, and top violence off, the pitch.

Usually it takes months of planning for the police to keep the supporters groups apart, now they suddenly have three days. Any postponement, for public safety for instance, results in an automatic away win. But let's focus on the game.

Thanks to their cup final appearance against champions PSV, Ajax are certain of a UEFA Cup place and so are the other three contenders. It is that one holy Champions League opportunity they all feverishly have their eye on.

FC Groningen benefited from a terrible slump of form of FC Utrecht, who took none out of nine points in the end and stumbled into the sixth position. FC Groningen now take on runners-up AZ Alkmaar. Looking at the league results between them - 1-1 and 0-0 - FC Groningen would go through, but AZ should be capable of reaching the final.

Feyenoord's task seems a bit more difficult. Although they did the double over Ajax and witnessed their deadly rivals having a nightmare season, there is this aching feeling among the fans of the Rotterdam team that Ajax somehow always come out as ultimate winners.

Blind's team were extremely lucky during their final two home games, when AZ missed a hatful of chances and the linesman missed two offsides within one second for the equalizer at the death against Vitesse and they then won the game in injury time.

The introduction of the play-offs is clearly a stroke of good fortune for Ajax, without which their season would have been wasted and Blind departed. Still, it looks like the Ajax-coach is living on borrowed time and any defeat in the coming weeks may spell the end of his short reign.

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