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May 3, 2011

Double chance for Ajax and Twente

Never before in the history of the Eredivisie has the fixture list computer churned out a final matchday programme containing such compelling encounters.

That Feyenoord and NEC meet in De Kuip in a direct battle for tenth place, and possibly ninth, only delights those directly involved. The excitement mounts when you know that Vitesse and Excelsior meet to decide who will continue their season in the relegation play-offs. Excelsior need to win with a whopping four-goal margin in the Gelredome to jump over their opponents, although De Graafschap, level with Vitesse but with a worse goal difference, could add to the suspense if they cannot take a point at home against VVV Venlo, who are already in the play-offs themselves.

Whatever the relegation hurly-burly in the east of Holland comes to, it will always fade in comparison to the Rumble in the Amsterdam ArenA between Ajax and FC Twente, where the winner takes the title, no strings attached. The visitors can even settle for a draw, being one point up at present. Lurking in the shadows are PSV, who have no chance of winning the championship but will take second place with a win away at FC Groningen. That is a very important spot indeed as it guarantees a place in August's qualifying rounds for the Champions League. The loser of the weekend in two weeks' time ends up in the Europa League.

Key to this situation is PSV's superior goal difference, with a win propelling them over FC Twente should they lose, and over Ajax should the two leading clubs draw. Both of the teams playing in Amsterdam will therefore keep an anxious eye on the scoreboard to check on PSV's quest in Groningen, where the home team need a win to stay in contention for a direct Europa League spot. Therefore, it won't be plain sailing for PSV up north, even more as the club have alarmingly lost form in recent weeks. They desperately need to perform, if only to secure much-needed Champions League income next season.

Meanwhile in Amsterdam, the title is at stake. No one can interfere, just like in a cup final, which strangely enough will also played by Ajax and FC Twente before the conclusion of the league campaign, giving Netherlands its own little Clasico series.

History counts for nothing in such tense affairs, especially when you remember that the last cup final between these teams was played before most of the current gladiators were born. In 1979, Ajax and FC Twente drew 1-1 after extra-time. Twente dominated large parts of the game until an own goal by Wim Meutstege put them in front. Then Ajax came back to score the equaliser, ensuring a replay just four days before a league weekend in which Ajax were hoping to secure the title.

It proved not to be a problem. FC Twente easily succumbed in the second game with a 3-0 defeat, while Ajax only needed a point at home against AZ '67 after an away win at lowly Volendam in the Pentecost weekend. Thanks to a late equaliser by Ray Clarke, Ajax took the Double, and they ended the season with another meeting with FC Twente in Stadium De Meer: a memorable 8-1 as it is still the biggest away defeat in FC Twente's history.

This season the teams have met twice. In the Johan Cruyff Schaal, the Dutch version of the English Community Shield, in early August, FC Twente successfully defended an early lead given to them by Luuk de Jong, while the first league encounter in Enschede ended in a 2-2 draw. Since that game Ajax have lost Luis Suarez and Urby Emanuelson, while Maarten Stekelenburg is injured and Mounir El Hamdaoui, of whom much was expected, has scored only twice in the league since October.

In fact, Ajax are stumbling to the end of the season, yet still find themselves in a good position to take the title as their rivals have slipped up as well. Unusually, Ajax are not represented in the higher echelons of the top-scorers list. El Hamdaoui has failed to adequately replace Luis Suarez, Frank de Boer regularly puts Siem de Jong up front but he tends to track back in midfield and as Miralem Sulejmani and talented Christian Eriksen roam around there as well, it can be more crowded around the penalty box than in. Still, they do manage to score more than they concede and Sulejmani is slowly returning to the form that made him a €16 million purchase from Heerenveen in 2008.

With goalkeeper Stekelenburg out injured for the rest of the season, Ajax looked down and out at the start of April but Kenneth Vermeer has proved to be a worthy replacement. His miraculous saves in recent away games against NEC and Heerenveen have kept the club in contention. If his luck runs out, Ajax could be in for a hiding to nothing against FC Twente.

Ajax's opponents are tired after a long season and would have been out of the title race by now if it was not for Theo Janssen. The burly midfielder is going from strength to strength at the moment, pushed on by his wish to sign a lucrative deal abroad. He has scored four goals against Ajax and PSV already this season while pulling the strings in midfield. Twente's chances of silverware will hinge on the influence of Janssen on both games.

An interesting subplot to these decisive encounters is the De Jong brothers, Siem and Luuk, who face each other on the pitch. Ajax's Siem has two years' Eredivisie experience over his brother, but Twente's Luuk won the title last year. Both play in the No. 10 position and are capable of snatching a sneaky goal. My guess is that there is not much between them so Ajax win the cup, while FC Twente take the title, or the other way around.

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