Netherlands: Koeman adds imports as Ajax set sights on reclaiming crown

Amsterdam club complement homegrown talent with trio of signings as established powerhouses seem certain to contest league
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The Independent Football

It is something of a myth that Ajax exclusively owe their success at home and abroad to the extravagantly-gifted products of their celebrated youth system.

Over the years, the Amsterdammers have always complemented the homegrown with the imported and they certainly seem to have made an excellent trio of foreign signings this summer. The Belgian striker Wesley Sonck, signed from Genk, will bring his trademark effervescence and explosive goalscoring; the Czech full-back Zdenek Grygera (Sparta Prague) has a growing reputation as both a no-nonsense defender and attacking threat; while the highly-rated young Frenchman Julien Escude, once a transfer target for Manchester United, should be an excellent replacement at sweeper for the Romanian Cristian Chivu, who has moved to Roma.

No doubt Ajax will miss the wing-play of the fast-improving Andy van der Meyde now that he has gone to Internazionale. However, they still have more than enough talent to claim what will be their 29th league title. Their tall, Swedish striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic has the touch and awareness to be a great player, the playmaker Rafael van der Vaart is maturing fast, as are precocious midfielders Wesley Sneijder, Nigel de Jong and the South African Steven Pienaar. The coach Ronald Koeman is adamant his squad is stronger this season. It is an opinion shared by many.

Normally, champions tend to let their guard slip the following season. But do not expect PSV Eindhoven to be complacent. Their coach, Guus Hiddink, who worked wonders in leading South Korea to the semi-finals of the last World Cup, has never been one to accept the time-honoured Dutch tradition of players publicly questioning the coach's decisions and if his charges do not keep up to standards they end up on the sidelines. Ask the Danish winger Dennis Rommedahl and the Swiss midfielder Johann Vogel, who were both dropped for a period by Hiddink last season for not putting in enough effort.

Continuity is the watchword at PSV. Their two most influential players, the midfield pivot, Mark van Bommel, and the prolific Serb striker Mateja Kezman - the league's top scorer last term with 35 goals - remain, while the only newcomers are the teenage Danish defender, Michael Jacobsen (B93 Copenhagen), and the centre-back Jurgen Colin, returning from an impressive loan spell at NAC Breda.

As for Feyenoord, the Netherlands' other leading club, the outlook is considerably less upbeat. With Pierre van Hooijdonk quitting for the Turkish side Fenerbahce in the wake of a row over money and the dynamic Dutch-Australian midfield pairing of Paul Bosvelt and Brett Emerton opting for the delights of the Premiership at Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City respectively, the Rotterdammers are undeniably weaker. Though the new striker Dirk Kuijt showed much promise last season at Utrecht, other additions to the squad such as the Serb forward Danko Lazovic (Partizan Belgrade) and the defenders Peter van den Berg (RKC Waalwijk) and the Brazilian Jean (Atletico Paranaense) may not be of the same high standard.

It is now 22 long years since a team outside the big three claimed the Dutch title - AZ Alkmaar back in 1980-81 - and, realistically, it may be another two decades before another provincial outfit does so. The gap which separates the Amsterdam-Rotterdam-Eindhoven axis and the rest widens each season, with top flight clubs such as Utrecht, Twente Enschede, Vitesse Arnhem, NAC Breda, RKC Waalwijk, NEC Nijmegen all suffering from acute financial woes.

This lack of strength in depth has prompted the PSV president Harry van Raaij to leap on to his soapbox and campaign long and loud for the creation of a Benelux League featuring the cream of Dutch and Belgian clubs. He claims it is the only way to attract sponsors, boost television revenue and safeguard professional football in the Low Countries. But if the majority of Belgian clubs agree with him, crucially, Ajax and Feyenoord do not share the vision.

Where Dutch football does excel is in the high number of technically and tactically proficient young players they churn out. Possible rising stars this season could be the Ajax defender Johnny Heitinga, NEC Nijmegen left-back, Jeffrey Leiwakabessy, Feyenoord centre-back Glenn Loovens and attackers Romano Denneboom at Heerenveen and Jason Oost of RKC Waalwijk.

THREE TO WATCH IN THE DUTCH LEAGUE

THOMAS BUFFEL (FEYENOORD)

The 22-year-old Belgian spent the early part of his career with Cercle Bruges and Excelsior Rotterdam hugging the left-flank or playing as an orthodox striker. But with Feyenoord he has come into his own in a floating role just behind the front-men, excelling with his late runs into the box and calm finishing. Feyenoord coach Bert van Maarwijk will be counting on him producing another 18-goal season.

ARJEN ROBBEN (PSV EINDHOVEN)

Brilliant young Dutch international midfielder who burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old with Groningen. Had Ajax and Feyenoord at his feet but chose to move to PSV, contributing 12 goals and many assists to their league title campaign of last season. Pacy and tricky, he is usually employed on the left-side but many experts believe he will take on a more central role in the not-too distant future.

WESLEY SNEIJDER (AJAX)

The teenage midfielder's world was turned upside down in the second half of last term, as he made the transition from Ajax reserves to the first team with ease. He then shone in a Champions' League quarter-final against Milan and graduated to the full Dutch XI. Two-footed, enterprising and has the self-assured 'Made in Ajax' stamp. Despite his inexperience, takes set-pieces.

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