AZ miss out as RKC go down
In the end, according to Louis van Gaal, it was the referees who were to blame. Two AZ goals against Ajax were disallowed in their recent encounters, while a blatant offside was missed, allowing John Heitinga to open the scoring in the return leg of the play-off finals in Amsterdam.
With a swift second goal and AZ's inability to get back into the game, after a cautious approach from the start, Ajax were once again propelled into the qualifying rounds of the Champions League next August.
AZ were definitely unlucky with some of the decisions, but Van Gaal's paranoid rant at the press conference, about the big clubs getting all the breaks, seemed like a cunning diversion to avoid talking about the mistakes of his own men. Having played on the attack for most of the season his team suddenly tracked back into its own half, trying to defend the 2-1 lead from the first match.
Ajax struggled in the first half, but did better after the break and it was only a matter of time before the goal came. There was no argument that it was a contestable one, yet it was also the result of a failing offside trap, which has cost AZ a couple of goals already this season. It leaves them with another season in the UEFA Cup.
Louis van Gaal has done miracles with his young talented squad this year, but may have created its downfall in the end by endlessly telling the press how they are not a 'Big Club' and 'not a title challenger'.
Somehow, maybe subconsciously, his players lacked the belief that they could actually win prizes although they were only minutes away from taking the double. Defeats against Ajax in the Cup final and the play-offs can happen in any year, but if you only need to beat the 17th club to win the title (when you have not lost a league game since Christmas), there are few excuses when you lose.
His team were paralyzed from the pressure and never got into the game. Apparantly Van Gaal did not manage to get his players into the right flow. One could argue that AZ is not a big club as they did not have a big coach. Maybe, I am being a bit harsh here, but one of the crucial aspects of coaching top players to win prizes today is psychology. Looking at their empty hands at the end of this and last season, Van Gaal should wonder if his mental approach works for his own squad.
Of course, winning the UEFA Cup and the Champions League with Ajax in the early nineties was unforgettable, but so was missing out on the World Cup as coach of the Dutch team in 2001. After giving away a two goal lead in Portugal in the final minutes, progressing to the Far East for the 2002 competition in Korea all came down to the game in Dublin against Ireland.
When Gary Kelly got his second yellow after an hour it was still goalless, yet instead of taking the necessary three points from ten men, the Dutch conceded a goal and lost not only the game but also their participation in the Far East. Am I the only one to spot some sort of a pattern here?
Anyway, the summer will be crucial for AZ. Will they become a selling club with all their talent leaving to Europe's top teams or will they buy players and strengthen to become part of the elite themselves? Maybe another season in the shadows of the UEFA Cup will help them earn some more experience to do really well in the Champions League the next.
At the other end of the table the lights went out for RKC Waalwijk. Fans talking about European football in the summer where silenced when their team were left bottom in the first half of the season. Manager Adrie Koster was replaced by Mark Wotte who stipulated a strengthening of the squad during the winterbreak. Immediate relegation was therefore avoided, but during the play-offs the team went spectacularly off the rails.
Having survived a scare in three stages against unfancied FC Dordrecht, they crashed into the first division after two defeats at VVV Venlo with a no show in the deciding third game.
RKC entered the professional game as late as 1984 with a ramshackle stadium and a pitch, which even sheep would turn their noses up at. Despite this, keen signings put them into the top half of the first division and in 1987/88 they broke all records by losing only one point in 24 games.
They have not looked back since. With very acute management, great scouting and a tight financial budget RKC showed how to survive in top class football on a shoe-string budget. Managers like Martin Jol and Erwin Koeman learned their trade in Waalwijk. It used to be a sort of rehab for players who did not fit in at the big clubs or needed one or two years on loan to flourish.
The best example is Khalid Boulahrouz. He never made it at Ajax nor AZ, but got a chance from Martin Jol to prove himself. In three years Jol turned the twenty year old nobody into an international. Actually, Boulahrouz was the first RKC player to be nominated in the Dutch squad, but when he made his debut for the national team he had just signed for Hamburger SV. The millions came pouring in and for the first time RKC had some dough to spent.
There was more to follow. Rick Hoogendorp was sold to VfL Wolfsburg and Serginho Greene to Feyenoord in 2005. The next summer Maarten Martens and young Ryan Donk, who had only played six games in the Eredivisie, left for AZ, filling the coffers even more. But worse was to follow when they were accompanied to Alkmaar by technical director Marcel Brands.
The change of management and the financial windfall has done the club no good. The money was wasted on bigger salaries and the wrong players. Built to play for the play-offs according to their stature, the squad lacked the fighting spirit that is needed in a relegation dogfight. And so, after a dream of eighteen years playing in the Eredivisie in a small city and a tiny ground, Waalwijk should prepare itself for a long spell in the dolldrums of the first.
Along with ADO Den Haag they will strive to return immediately, however there is only one automatic promotion place and ADO seems to have the better infrastructure with a brand new stadium. At RKC talks of big sponsors and player transfers are rife already.