Dutch title PSV's to lose?
Being an internationally reputed columnist people regularly stop me in the street or in the supermarket to ask my predictions for the coming season.
When I am cornered and can't run away, I firmly state that it will be PSV again this year. And if not PSV then definitely Ajax or Feyenoord. And keep an eye on AZ Alkmaar or even FC Groningen! In short: I won't burn my fingers on making predictions anymore.
Last year most pundits were certain that PSV would face an extremely difficult time. Koreans Lee Young-Pyo and Park Ji-Sung moved away on as did Wilfred Bouma, Mark van Bommel and Johann Vogel; Ajax were looking dangerous under new coach Danny Blind, while Feyenoord still had their striking duo Salomon Kalou and Dirk Kuyt upfront and Louis van Gaal had started at AZ Alkmaar, who looked even stronger than in the successful year before.
However, halfway through the season Ajax were trailing PSV by 11 points, while AZ and Feyenoord were hanging on by their fingernails.
By the time Eindhoven crashed out of the Champions League in the second round at the hands of Olympique Lyon their national title was almost secured. At that point all Dutch clubs had waved goodbye to European glory and the season was only saved from dullness by the emergence of FC Groningen as a challenger in end-of-season play-offs; on the final day they were just minutes away from entrance to the preliminary rounds of the Champions League.
With none of the first team leaving and the arrival of left-back Carlos Salcido from Mexican club Chivas PSV have only gained in strength this summer and should only get better. The biggest change at the club has come on the bench with Guus Hiddink leaving to coach Russia and his assistants Fred Rutten and René Eykelkamp moving to FC Twente.
The man now in charge at PSV is Ronald Koeman, back after a not-so-successful year at Benfica. The jury is still out on whether the tactics of the former free-kick specialist are of the same force as his shots on goal. By the evidence we have gathered so far the answer is a resounding 'no'.
Having done well at Vitesse on the pitch, but with questionable scouting of new players, Koeman's stint at Ajax was uncomfortable. He left halfway through the season with no clue how to lift the quality of a seemingly talented team; he tried every trick in the book and failed. Will he fare better as Guus Hiddink heir at PSV?
Brother Erwin is still in charge at Feyenoord. With Jonas Kolkka and Stein Huysegems as the new flank players their midfield should be more balanced, but without Salomon Kalou in attack and no-one to replace him, goals may be hard to come by. Should Dirk Kuyt leave for some Champions League participant the club will face the daunting task of having to bring perhaps two goal-scorers.
There will be money to spend, but where can you find a pair that play so well together as the two K's have over recent years? Besides, you cannot expect Pierre van Hooydonk to bag more than 10 goals this season as the man is closing in on his 37th birthday. Expect some transfer action at the stadium club before the month is over.
AZ Alkmaar is now a stadium club too, having traded the ramshackle but cosy Alkmaarderhout, which could hold no more than 8,500, for the state-of-the-art, DSB Stadium which boasts twice the capacity of their old home and which the club expects to fill every game this season.
Even in AZ '67's heydays back in 1981, when they won the title with five games to spare and reached the UEFA Cup final, few people bothered to turn up as the team was labelled as a toy for a couple of millionaires. How times have changed. Now there is only one millionaire keeping the AZ-boat afloat with no other affiliation than residing in the region.
In fact chairman Dirk Scheringa oversaw a relegation and several disappointing years on the trot and still kept his patience. Few coaches have been sacked in Alkmaar.
This year sees a major overhaul of the team which has been successful in the past. Barry van Galen retired, while Kenneth Perez (Ajax), Denny Landzaat (Wigan), Henk Timmer (Feyenoord) and Tarik Sektioui (FC Porto) were all sold. In has come a host of young talent like Moussa Dembele and Kemy Agustien (Willem II), Joey Gudjohnsson (Leicester City), Julian Jenner and David Mendes da Silva (NAC), but most importantly Gijs Luirink from FC Groningen.
Central defender Luirink had an excellent end of the season at FC Groningen and then went on to be an important figure in the Dutch U-21 squad at the European Championship in Portugal.
The influence of Luirink and Stijn Schaars on the AZ game will be crucial. If they have a good season, the club might go places. If one considers PSV as the probable champions then AZ's target will be qualifying for the second Champions League.
At Ajax out have gone Tomas Galasek (Nurnberg), Steven Pienaar (Dortmund) en Hatem Trabelsi (Manchester City) and in have come Jaap Stam, Kenneth Perez and Barcelona's Gabri. Galasek will surely be missed as the leader on the pitch and while Stam could take on that role the bold defender is ageing and could be busy enough directing his defence.
However, at least Ajax have dealt with the question of goal-scorers, as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar proved with his two goals against FC Copenhagen in the recent Champions League qualifier. In May he was top-scorer at the U-21's European Championship and it only seems a matter of time before he appears in the full national team.
And while we're on the subject there was some good news on the Orange front: Edwin van der Sar has decided to continue his international career at least until the 2008 European Championships, which will come as a relief to coach Marco Van Basten.
At the World Cup the goalkeeper was the only Dutch player who kept a world class standard throughout the tournament. Actually, he has been rock-steady for the team since he made his debut in 1995 and his place has never been in doubt since.
Van der Sar follows a line of excellent Dutch shot-shoppers dating back to the 1970s including PSV's Jan van Beveren, Ajax's Piet Schrijvers and Hans van Breukelen, keepers who spearheaded generations of reliable, no-nonsense No.1s.
In fact there were so many quality keepers in that era that some never managed to reach the Eredivisie, while others spent years on the bench at the highest level waiting for a chance that never came. However, the seemingly endless production line of top Dutch goalies seems to have stopped.
Aside from Van der Sar in the current era the next most-promising keeper is Ajax's Maarten Stekelenburg and he still has a lot to learn.
The 23-year-old is currently first choice at Ajax but showed little understanding with his central defenders Stam and Thomas Vermaelen in the Champions League match in Copenhagen and for a man of 6ft 4' there was a bit too much flapping.
Dennis Gentenaar, Stekelenburg's new understudy at Ajax, had some great games for Borussia Dortmund last season and was extremely reliable during his years at NEC Nijmegen, but has little European experience.
At Feyenoord the two veterans Henk Timmer and Patrick Lodewijks battle it out, while PSV has not had a Dutch keeper for ages and the smaller clubs also rely on thirty-somethings and foreigners. It does not bode well for the future.
'Big talents' have come and gone with none managing to make a lasting impression; Jelle ten Rouwelaar and Michael Aerts were both big prospects when they joined PSV and Feyenoord respectively, but both succumbed to the pressure.
At this summer's U-21 European Championships, which the Dutch won, goal was kept by Kenneth Vermeer of Ajax who seems to have learned his trade by studying videos of England's David James - Brilliant at one moment, erratic the next.
So Edwin van der Sar's place is secure for the next two years, then there will be panic all around in the search for his successor.