Week three of the Eredivisie season heralded the clash of old foes Feyenoord and Ajax; the former’s intimidating De Kuip stadium the venue for the 158th running of der Klassieker since the rivalry was born in 1921.
Ajax, now under the tutelage of one of their favourite sons, Marco van Basten, travelled to Rotterdam as most bookies’ favourites for the Dutch title – this despite PSV’s four-year-long domestic dominance – and riding high on the back of a thumping 4-1 UEFA Cup victory at Serbia’s FK Borac during midweek. Meanwhile, their opponents had suffered a humbling 0-1home reverse at the hands of Swedish League leaders Kalmar.
Support for the Amsterdammers was severely restricted due to episodic crowd trouble in and outside of previous fixtures between the two clubs, but ‘the Legion’ – Feyenoord’s raucous following – were in fine voice in sun-kissed Rotterdam.
Feyenoord started without midfield star Jonathan de Guzmán, through injury, and their current lack of squad depth was exposed by a benchful of untried youngsters. Van Basten, on the other hand, felt confident enough to leave talented Argentine-Croat forward Darío Cvitanich on the bench, as cover for goal-machine Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Dutch record (£13m) signing Miralem Sulejmani.
The home side enjoyed marginally the better of the tense, hard-fought opening exchanges, while Ajax had to re-adjust after losing Sulejmani to an early injury. Yet it was the visitors that took the lead, following a terrible howler by Feyenoord goalkeeper Henk Timmer.
The ex-AZ stopper badly fluffed an attempted clearance, with Ajax winger Jeffrey Sarpong taking full advantage to clinically fire in left-footed, from the edge of the area.
Just minutes later, Leonardo – Sulejmani’s replacement – pounced on a stray pass and raced clear of the Feyenoord defence. Timmer, clearly rattled by his earlier misdemeanour, raced from his goal; crudely hacking the Brazilian down just outside the box. Only the covering presence of Theo Lucius prevented referee Peter Vink from reaching for the red, and Timmer was justly booked.
With Ajax clearly in the ascendency, Thomas Vermaelen spurned a glorious opportunity to extend their advantage – heading straight at Timmer on the stroke of half time.
Head Coach Gertjan Verbeek’s words were doubtless still ringing in the ears of his players as they made a spirited start to the second period. Following hot on the heels of Roy Makaay’s wayward finish – when he really should have scored from close range – seasoned striker Jon Dahl Tomasson nodded in an equaliser when the ball looped up from the foot of unfortunate ‘keeper Maarten Stekelenberg.
The home crowd energised by the goal of a returning favourite; Feyenoord found themselves firmly on top, and favourites to claim their second win of the season. However, the tide was turned by the 69th minute endeavours of Ajax’s tricky Uruguayan forward Luis Suárez.
Suárez used all his skill and dexterity to wriggle through Kevin Hofland’s meaty challenge and, inadvertently, tee-up the ball for penalty-box predator Huntelaar to sweep home his 99th goal in an Ajax shirt.
The arrival of Van Basten as manager has apparently brought with it the requirement for the tall striker to diversify – adding improved team-play to his already formidable goalscoring repertoire (166 goals in 235 games to date). And Huntelaar could hardly have a finer exponent of the centre-forward’s art to learn from than his new boss.
Yet it was far too early for the artisans of Amsterdam to take for granted a victory over their bitter rivals from the industrious port city.
Perhaps more in hope than in expectation, Verbeek threw on veteran forward Michael Mols, now far past his peak, aged 37. Within ten minutes the ex-Rangers man had produced the desired effect.
As a hopeful ball from the left touchline looped into the box, Ajax full-back Urby Emanuelson inexplicably wrapped himself around Mols, bringing the diminutive striker to earth inside the area. Referee Vink – erratic throughout – pointed straight to the spot.
Tomasson stepped forward and confidently struck his penalty over into the net, to register his third success from the spot in three attempts this season and salvage a deserved point for his team.
The impact of either side’s failure to win was somewhat softened by PSV’s Saturday loss to Louis Van Gaal’s AZ, in Alkmaar, yet the smart money would still be on the team from Eindhoven making it five out of five next May.
The return Klassieker, at the Amsterdam ArenA next year, could still prove crucial in deciding the destiny of the title. Marco Van Basten will be aiming that, by that time, his ambitious footballing philosophy has been fully absorbed by his expensively-assembled side, and that they can live up to renewed expectations.