McClaren faces final hurdle as he aims to make Twente history
Saturday 01 May 2010
The renaissance of the English football manager could continue tomorrow as Steve McClaren's Twente go in search of a victory that would win them the Dutch Eredivisie title.
After Roy Hodgson led Fulham to the Europa League final, McClaren could book his place in next season's Champions League if his side can match whatever result Martin Jol's Ajax manage in the last game in the Dutch league.
There will be no fancy Premier-League style helicopter hovering between grounds, so with Twente top with a point more than Ajax, the genuine silverware will be at the Rat Verlegh Stadium for their game against NAC Breda. And a copy of the trophy will be at the Goffertstadion where Ajax play NEC Nijmegen, just in case Twente slip up.
McClaren knows all about falling at the final hurdle: he was, of course, the hapless rain-drenched manager who looked forlornly on as the England team were beaten by Croatia 3-2 at Wembley in November 2007, ensuring that they failed to qualify for Euro 2008. Twente will not have it easy against a NAC Breda side who can still get into the qualifying rounds of next season's Europa League if they can pick up the three points.
McClaren's opponents will also have a massive financial incentive to do Ajax a favour. In the Netherlands it is not illegal to offer other teams a cash bonus to win their matches and Ajax have all but confirmed they plan to pay NAC Breda if they can beat Twente and deny them the title.
Dutch neutrals have been split by an historic allegiance to the country's most famous and most popular club and a soft spot for McClaren who is seen as an English gentleman of the game in much the same way that Bobby Robson, the last English coach to win a league abroad with Porto in 1996, was viewed when he coached PSV.
Ajax have a vastly superior goal difference, boosted by having scored 102 goals in 33 matches so far this season and conceded only 19. But without being anywhere near as spectacular, Twente have been ruthlessly efficient, losing just two games all season. A win tomorrow would be the first trophy in the club's history and be very bad news for fallen giants Ajax, who, by contrast with their rivals, have won 29 Dutch titles and been champions of Europe on four occasions.
Second place in the Netherlands condemns a side to two daunting knock-out rounds before the Champions League proper begins. Twente were runners-up last year but could not get past Sporting Lisbon, who in turn failed to beat Fiorentina, underling the intense nature of the competition before the group stages of Europe's premier competition have even begun.
Not contesting the European Cup is a fate fans are desperate to avoid because they know a lack of Champions League football next season would probably see the Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez move on in the summer, although Jol is expected to stay, with the club keen for him to build on a spectacular second half of the season and not be compelled to change coaches for a sixth time in the last four years.
Winning the league would put McClaren, who will be 49 on Monday, back on the radar of a host of English clubs although the lure of leading Twente into their first-ever Champions League campaign might be too much to walk away from.
Messi aims to bounce back on tough trip for Barça
Barcelona take their fragile one-point lead over Real Madrid to Villarreal tonight, a venue where they have lost five of their last seven encounters. Leo Messi, who hasn't scored for three games, will be looking for his first goal against a side who need a win themselves to secure a European place for next season.
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