Although the half way point has only just been passed, there can be hardly any doubt about the next champions of the Eredivisie.
AZ opened up a nine point lead this weekend as they march to the second title in their history. Should they hang on to this gap then they would celebrate the championship at the end of April in the Amsterdam ArenA, when AZ play Ajax. The club from Alkmaar sealed their first title in 1981 with a 5-1 rout of Feyenoord in De Kuip.
Two years ago they came within minutes of the championship but stumbled over lowly Excelsior. The hangover cost them dear last season as coach Louis van Gaal suddenly found himself in the middle of a squad which was rife with internal squabbling. Van Gaal handed in his resignation with the relegation play-offs looming, but some of the players begged him to stay at least until the summer. They won their remaining games, after which the club managed to get rid of the bad apples. Just as important was a change of tactics. Having lost the first two games this season, Van Gaal pulled his team back into their own half to play counter attacking football. They have not lost since. Once the messiah of possession the coach has fallen of his belief. Waiting for that one mistake in the build-up of their opponents to break out at speed and numbers is no longer frowned upon by the coach who once won the Champions League with Ajax by locking the likes of AC Milan, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid into their own half.
However, you cannot blame him. Something had to give after the disappointment of last season. Maybe AZ are not the attacking sensation they used to be, but getting results is also an asset. The fans will prefer to lay their hands on silverware once again over being the football aficionados number one team but coming second in many a table or final in recent years.
AZ are certainly helped by the fall of the Big Three this season. Ajax are struggling to find the form to put a string of wins together. After reorganizing the club over the summer new coach Marco van Basten was given almost carte blanche to make a title winning squad. There is money available but scouting is still the weak point of the club. They have always relied on their excellent youth academy, but over recent years the production line has stuttered. Wesley Sneijder was the last exceptional one, while you have to struggle to remember a home-grown striker since the days of Patrick Kluivert.
As this well is apparently drying out, the lack of a decent international network of scouts is now coming back to haunt them. Ajax have to do most of their transfers with other Eredivisie clubs, but these have become smarter over the years. Clubs like Heerenveen, FC Groningen and FC Twente do find and nurture talents from smaller leagues and sell them to Ajax for top prizes. And sometimes they take surplus players from Ajax, make them better and resell them to Amsterdam. Most of them don't get any better once they return to the ArenA.
Ajax have also suffered from losing out on the Champions League for three years in a row as this meant less income and less international experience for their players. PSV benefited, but are now in turmoil themselves. Huub Stevens arrived in the summer, fulfilling the dream of coaching the club with which he played for so long, but failed to get a grip on the squad and resigned last week.
Out of the Cup and out of Europe already, PSV can use the upcoming months to prepare for next season. They are still better off than Feyenoord, who thought that the appointment of Gert-Jan Verbeek last summer would herald a new era based on hard work, grit and determination, epitomizing the character of the city of Rotterdam. It made the coach very popular with the labouring fans, who recognized him as "one of them", but not with the players.
His regime of fitness and power training did not fall well and even resulted in a rise in injuries. On the pitch the team never managed to play with any distinguishable tactical style, while there was an incredible total of unforced errors and erratic performances. They now hover two points above the relegation zone.
The Feyenoord of Verbeek was not any different though from the teams that failed under Bert van Marwijk, Erwin Koeman or Ruud Gullit. The club has signed the successful NEC trainer Mario Been for next season already, but there are more problems at Feyenoord than just a string of bad coaches. One of them is the lack of money, another is the lack of vision and patience, although these virtues are quite uncommon in most widely supported clubs.
Suggestions have been made that the lower you go in the football divisions the more effective every penny is spent. This is certainly true in the Eredivisie nowadays. Worldwide talents consider provincial clubs like FC Groningen, Heerenveen, FC Twente or NEC as springboards to the top. Easy going places where they can accustom to top level football and make a mistakes once in while before making the jump. These clubs make decent profits on these transfers and see their fan and sponsor base grow in the meantime.
AZ are somewhere in between as they don't have to sell to grow. Their wealthy chairman Dirk Scheringa took care of the finances, even when the club struggled to reach the top five for several years. His patience might pay off at the end of this season.