Scott Musgrave

The new European season is already in full swing and after many qualifying rounds for the Champions League and the newly created Europa League, Dutch football fans know their fate for the group phases of the two competitions.

Recent years have been blighted by disappointment for Dutch clubs with few making it past the group stages of the Champions League, let alone the Round of 16. Much the same problem exists in the Europa League, where in its old format Eredivisie clubs struggled to make an impact past the Round of 32.

PSV Eindhoven have been the most successful of recent years, with regular Round of 16 appearances including a quarter-final appearance against Liverpool in the 2006/07 season. Ajax, regularly the only other Dutch club in the Champions League, have struggled but have too contributed with one or two appearances in the Round of 16, despite being only a shadow of the mid-1990s team. AZ Alkmaar are the only other team in the last five years to make an impact, with a couple of showings in the latter stages of the UEFA Cup.

Last season was a disaster for Dutch clubs as PSV finished fourth in their Champions League group,  and whilst in the UEFA Cup, NEC Nijmegen, FC Twente and Ajax all made it out of their group, Ajax were the only team to make it to the Round of 16 as Twente and Nijmegen stuttered. Dutch fans will be hoping for better this time around and perhaps some surprises will be in the offing.

AZ Alkmaar are the only Dutch team in the Champions League group stages this year and Ronald Koeman’s side should be able to acquit themselves well. Koeman has a good pedigree in the competition most recently guiding former champions PSV Eindhoven to the quarter-final and the club have made a good start to their Eredivisie campaign. AZ have been drawn with Arsenal who will provide a stern test, and Olympiacos and Standard Liege who will be considered beatable. Topping the group may be a lot to ask but hopes are high that AZ can progress.

There were four successful qualifiers to the group stages of the Europa League with Twente, Ajax, Heerenveen and PSV Eindhoven making it through. All will hope to make progress in the maiden year of the new competition.

Ajax have been drawn in a testing group with Belgian runners-up Anderlecht, Croatian champions Dinamo Zagreb and Romanian runners-up FC Timisoara. The Amsterdam side have traditionally had trouble with Eastern European sides and this could well prove a stern test for Martin Jol and his men. They will be well acquainted with Dinamo Zagreb whom knocked them out of the UEFA Cup two seasons ago, while Romanian teams have always been strong in Europe’s second tier competition. The battle with Anderlecht will come down to who can perform on the day and although the Belgians were spanked by Lyon in qualification for the Champions League, and the margin may not be as big between the two, there is a gulf in quality between the teams.

Twente face Turkish heavyweights Fenerbahce, former European Champions Steaua Bucharest and Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol. The sternest tests will of course come from Fenerbache and Steaua but that is not to write off Sheriff as they performed admirably against Olympiacos in Champions League qualifying.  Steve McClaren’s squad is sure to be tested with all away games taking place in potentially hostile territory.  Steaua and Fenerbache in particularly are known for the atmosphere at their games and it is of no doubt that the fans will make it hard for Twente to concentrate on their football.

Possibly the weaker of the Dutch teams in the Europa League are Heerenveen, but certainly not one to be underestimated. The Frisian side has been competitive in the UEFA Cup in the past but have always come undone at the knockout phase in recent seasons. The challenge this year will be to better last year’s showing and hopefully make it further in the tournament.  Odds are however against them as Heerenveen are grouped together with Sporting Lisbon, Hertha Berlin and Latvian side Ventspils.

PSV are arguably in the strongest position of any Dutch team this year. Having positive results in Europe in the last five years has helped them become the first seed in their group and has thus given them an advantageous draw. They are joined by Danish champions FC Copenhagen, Czech runners-up,Sparta Prague and finally Romanian qualifiers CFR Cluj. On paper the group looks fairly straightforward but, like Ajax, trips away to Eastern Europe will be testing. PSV have good pedigree in the competition, but are going to need to keep their wits about them with all fixtures potential banana skins. Cluj should be easily enough accounted for but Sparta and Copenhagen will need to be approached tactfully.

The signs are positive for Dutch clubs this year and with a bit of luck the current campaign should be a relatively fruitful one , especially with former Champions League participants now trying their luck in the Europa League. PSV have to be the most heavily fancied out of all the Dutch sides to bring back silverware to Holland, though Ajax cannot be discounted. Whatever befalls the representatives from the Netherlands it is high time there was an end to a Dutch drought in European competition spanning seven years since Feyenoord lifted the UEFA Cup in the 2001/02 season.

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