x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

It is a six horse race in title chase in the Eredivisie

The top six teams are separated by five points, with a former Dutch masters at the helms of the leading sides.

Ronald Koeman, the Feyenoord coach, has also managed at Ajax, PSV and AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie.
Ronald Koeman, the Feyenoord coach, has also managed at Ajax, PSV and AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie.

The top of the Dutch Eredivisie resembles a slender Amsterdam canal on a busy day. Boats are clustered, nudging against one another, manoeuvring forward, or inching back. Bulky barges bustle for space with smaller narrowboats. Vessels with classic names swivel their rudders alongside those bearing provincial licence plates.

Going into the 28th round of matches, the top six teams are separated by five points. Current form is with the reigning champions, Ajax, although memories of their frailties are not so distant they can be entirely trusted to maintain it.

In mid-February, Frank de Boer's Ajax sat sixth. They are now second. Their run-in, starting at home to Heracles tomorrow, includes trips to Twente Enschede, who are third, and to Heerenveen, who are five points back of leaders AZ Alkmaar.

Dutch domestic football has long been reconciled to the fact that its best native footballers leave the Eredivisie for wealthier leagues. But some of the most talented Dutch players of the last 20 years are applying themselves there as coaches.

Heerenveen already have announced that Marco van Basten, the former European Footballer of the Year and Holland national team manager, will be their coach next season.

De Boer, the former national captain and elegant, pinpoint-passing centre-half of Ajax and Barcelona, won last season's title at his first attempt managing a senior team.

His Ajax came up against Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League and then Manchester United in the Europa League, which was chastening, although since the distraction of continental matches has been cleared from Ajax's calendar, they have soared. Last weekend's 2-0 win over PSV Eindhoven, a victory inspired by the excellent Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen, was Ajax's seventh in succession.

PSV, fourth, are under the care of another novice coach with a distinguished playing past. Phillip Cocu, a former PSV and Barcelona (and Al Jazira) player, has been in charge since Fred Rutten was dismissed earlier this month.

PSV are now fourth, the least predictable of the contenders, capable of conceding six goals at home to Twente or of thrashing Heerenveen 5-1 two weeks later; or beating Feyenoord, who are managed by Ronald Koeman, another former playing great.

Koeman has now coached each of the country's so-called Big Three - Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. He has also managed AZ. He knows the Eredivisie's canals intimately. Even if Koeman's Feyenoord do not seize one of the two Champions League places available to Holland's top flight, he has done a good job resurrecting the Rotterdam club, who had slumped badly in recent years.

The favourites for the title? For their one-point lead over second-place Ajax, probably AZ, the champions in 2009. Under Gertjan Verbeek they are solid, with the league's meanest defence, and with a feather in their cap from having on Thursday beaten Valencia in the first leg of their Europa League quarter-final.

AZ have travelled farther in Europe than any Dutch side this season, yet they may be concerned that the exertion affects their energies at home. They have dropped seven points in their last six league games.

Dark horses? Twente, where the former England manager Steve McClaren returned at the beginning of 2012. McClaren led Twente to the Eredivisie crown two years ago, announcing what seemed a genuine sea change in the hierarchy of Dutch football.

AZ took the title for the first time in 28 years, Twente won the next for their first. Ajax then struck back, but with the trio of big barges and three narrowboats - AZ, Twente and Heerenveen - all still in contention, their defence of it is turning out unusually tough.

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