Ajax aim at four titles in a row
1 August ~ At the beginning of this decade, it felt like Dutch football was going through a fundamental transformation. AZ Alkmaar were reigning champions, with Twente Enschede poised to replace them. The country's most successful club, Ajax, hadn't won the league since 2004 and fellow heavyweights Feyenoord's last success had been as far back as 1999. Vitesse were investing heavily and other provincial clubs such as Heerenveen continued to perform well both on and off the pitch. The established order seemed to be under sustained pressure.
The pendulum, however, has swung back ever since. Vitesse seem to have run out of money, Twente have lost many key players without effectively replacing them and despite (or maybe because of) having Marco van Basten at the helm, Heerenveen are still mired in the sub-top and also have difficulty holding on to their best performers. So this time round, yet again, it's difficult to see past yet another top-three finish for the traditional powerhouses of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord.
Ajax are going for four-in-a-row and seem fairly likely to achieve it. Under Frank de Boer the Amsterdam team have become consistent without being overly spectacular and have discovered the knack of getting stronger as the season progresses. The only notable addition so far to last year's playing squad is Bojan Krkic, on loan from Barcelona.
In contrast, it's been all change down in Eindhoven. Dick Advocaat's failure to steer PSV to the title last season heralded his departure. Gone, too, are Mark van Bommel (retired) and a clutch of players widely regarded as not having the ideal team mentality: Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev), Dries Mertens (Napoli) and Erik Pieters (Stoke). These sales, together with Kevin Strootman's transfer to Roma, generated somewhere in the region of €40 million (£34.9m). This has partly been reinvested in the excellent Adam Maher (AZ), Chelsea's Jeffrey Bruma and the Sporting Lisbon duo of Stijn Schaars and Santiago Arias. There is a real freshness to PSV under new manager Phillip Cocu and the average age during a recent Champions League qualifier was 21.
In 2012, Feyenoord's second-place finish was largely down to talismanic on-loan striker John Guidetti, while last season it was Graziano Pelle's goals that ensured the Rotterdam team finished third. At the time of writing there's still a month of the transfer window to go. If Pellè stays then Feyenoord should be there or thereabouts. If he leaves they could really struggle to score enough for a high-place finish.
Vitesse shook things up last year, pushing for the title until the very last weeks and beating Ajax home and away. Unfortunately during the close season they lost their two best players to Premier League clubs – tree-trunk-thighed goal-machine Wilfried Bony (Swansea) and Marco van Ginkel (Chelsea). The best they can probably hope for this year is to scrap for a place in the Europa League with Twente, AZ and the resurgent FC Utrecht. Not that it's always worth it; Utrecht enjoyed an excellent fifth-place league finish last year but have already been dumped out of the Europa League qualifiers by the mighty FC Differdange 03 of Luxembourg. Derek Brookman