Thursday 3 September ~
It's set to be an open season in the Netherlands. Lack of significant investment in new players means Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV could once again struggle to fend off the challenge from the so-called “smaller” clubs. Of course, the big success story last season was AZ Alkmaar. Winning their first title since 1981 came at a price, however, because Louis van Gaal decided his work had been completed and went off to Munich. There Uli Hoeness fried up a welcoming sausage for him, an act that both men seemed very pleased to tell the outside world about. No wonder Franck Ribéry said he wanted to leave.
Van Gaal’s replacement, Ronald Koeman, will have his work cut out to repeat last season's success while also competing in the Champions League, although AZ’s squad has remained largely intact and is probably the most complete out of all the title challengers.
Meanwhile in Amsterdam the appointment of Martin Jol has gone some way towards compensating for the short-lived and ultimately frustrating reign of Marco van Basten. This saw Ajax finish a dismal third in the league – missing out on possible Champions League qualification – and failing to impress in the UEFA Cup. To his credit, Van Basten seemed to recognise his own shortcomings and stepped down after only one season, saying that he couldn't imagine things improving significantly if he stayed.
Much is now expected of Jol, although it will be interesting to see whether he can actually win something; his credible stints at Spurs and Hamburg earned many plaudits but no prizes. In fact he only has a single trophy – the Dutch cup with Roda JC back in 1996 – to show for almost a decade and a half as a professional coach. The undisputed star of the Amsterdam side is Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez. If he can stay on his feet long enough in the penalty area to actually try and score, then you suspect he could virtually win the title single-handedly. Given the lack of real quality around him, he may well have to.
Both PSV and Feyenoord also have new coaches. The Eindhoven side replaced the erratic Huub Stevens with Fred Rutten, while Feyenoord swapped the even more erratic Gertjan Verbeek for Mario Been. The Rotterdam club in particular should benefit from the change; Been is a talented young coach and a dyed-in-the-wool Feyenoord man. His team will almost certainly improve on last season's disappointing seventh-place finish, although a particularly severe lack of funds means he will more or less have to do with the players he inherited.
And what of Steve McLaren? He had a very successful first season in the Netherlands, leading Twente Enschede to the runners-up spot in both the league and the Dutch cup, while also finding time to develop an interesting new Anglo-Dutch accent. The relative poverty of the traditional big three gives him a decent chance of challenging seriously for the honours again this time round. 2009-10 could well turn out to be what McLaren might call "a shpecial sheason". Derek Brookman