As a result of Southampton’s participation in the EFL Cup Final, I didn’t have an Arsenal game to fret and worry about this weekend; however as the resourceful (hopeless?) football obsessive that I am, I focused my full attention on the Eredivisie and La Liga on Sunday for an afternoon football marathon, much to the ‘delight’ of Mrs Football Nerd!
In recent weeks I have deliberately avoided mentioning what is going on with my boyhood club Feyenoord this season for fear of jinxing it, (because of course the feelings of some football obsessive over in London are the key determinant of a Dutch club’s ongoing fortunes!); however slowly but surely there is a growing feeling that something magical may be about to happen across the North Sea, a belief that despite the best efforts of those of us who have seen our hopes and dreams dashed before to downplay it, is becoming increasingly difficult to deny. Not since the turn of the century have the self-styled ‘people’s club’ come close to a bona fide title challenge, (my apologies if this all feels a bit familiar for Arsenal fans!), the Dutch title has been the almost exclusive preserve of the Rotterdam club’s bitterest rivals, with Ajax and PSV Eindhoven having between them won the league 15 times in the 17 seasons since Feyenoord could last call themselves ‘Landskampioen’.
However having been top of the table since the opening weekend and their highly impressive 5-0 away win at Groningen, relative rookie manager Gio Van Bronckhorst’s side have looked increasingly resolute and continued to pass each successive test of their credentials. Whereas last year 9 games without a win, including 7 defeats, immediately after the winter break, left any aspirations they held in tatters; this year’s run of 7 straight wins with only 1 goal conceded through that notoriously tricky period has bolstered belief that finally this might be the Rotterdammers’ year.
With each game that passes and the gap to the chasing pack maintained at five points, I find myself drawn deeper and deeper into the adventure, transported to a different time, when football seemed more real, less tainted by money and greed, when the progress of your team really meant something.
Early on Sunday afternoon in their latest challenge against PSV, Feyenoord ‘rode the wave of atmosphere generated by the fervent De Kuip crowd’, as the Sky Sports commentator Richard Connelly so aptly put it, and ripped into the reigning champions, creating two excellent early chances before left back Terence Kongolo set up Jens Toonstra, surprisingly selected ahead of captain and talisman Dirk Kuyt, to open the scoring with a rasping drive from the edge of the area.
From there on it was a nervy affair with the table-toppers unable to get that all-important second goal to secure the result. Then just past the hour mark when Pereiro curled an effort just inside Brad Jones’ right hand post to equalize for PSV, it was kick to the guts as it felt like the chance had been blown. Yet with less than 10 minutes to go, the football gods had a surprise in store when PSV goalkeeper Zoet fumbled Van der Heijden’s innocuous looking header on his goal-line, after a delay of a couple of seconds, which seemed to drag for those of us watching in tense anticipation, referee Bas Nijhuis pointed to the goal decision monitor on his wrist confirming that the ball had just about crept over the line, relief!
The three points kept Feyenoord in the driving seat in the title race and effectively knocked PSV out of it; 76-year old Rotterdam born actor Gerard Cox has often been quoted as saying, ‘You aren’t a Feyenoord fan for fun,’ I have to confess that I can understand thoroughly what he is saying; however as much as the tension is going to be increasingly difficult to bear over the remaining 10 games, I for one am relishing the evolving drama and can’t wait to see how it plays out. I keep telling myself that inevitably Ajax will claw back the points, but with each fixture ticked off, the dream keeps creeping just that little bit closer to becoming a reality; which in the end surely is what being a football fan is all about?
Meanwhile in Spain Luis Enrique’s Barcelona have looked strangely out of sorts in recent weeks; seemingly dropping slightly off the pace in the title race, destroyed by a rampant PSG in the Champions League and only just squeezing past lowly Leganes last time out thanks to a last minute Leo Messi penalty. Judging by the first half hour of the match on Sunday, Barcelona were there for the taking, Atletico were all over the Catalans and had them rocking but ultimately couldn’t make it count. Barca improved after half-time, in truth they couldn’t have played much worse, and grabbed the lead from an unusually scrappy goal, Rafinha poking home after the ball had ricocheted around the penalty area. Godin equalized minutes later, but in the end it was that man Messi, as so often before, who despite having done little previously, was on hand to secure all three points from Suarez’s cutback in the closing stages.
Real Madrid’s defeat to Valencia in midweek had kept Barca in the race and they are now just one point behind Los Blancos albeit having played a game more; they are however going to have to find some form, and quickly, over the coming weeks if they are to stay in the hunt ahead of the pivotal El Classico at the Bernabeu at the end of April.
The EFL Cup final meant that Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal were without Premier League fixtures, with Chelsea and Tottenham winning, the only major bit of news domestically was that Liverpool fell foul of a Leicester side that had cruelly dispensed with title-winning manager Claudio Ranieri. By all accounts the performance from the Anfield side was poor, wasteful in possession and lacking commitment and organisation without the ball. Klopp will be anticipating a response from his players when Arsenal visit this weekend; given the Gunners’ abysmal record in games against top six rivals and their nasty habit of not turning up in these matches, it would be no surprise at all if they provided one.