Feyenoord fans are starting to believe. It has been 18 years since they last saw their side win the Eredivisie and, although they enjoyed UEFA Cup success in 2002, they are tired of waiting for the day the Ajax-PSV duopoly ends and they emerge again as a serious force in the Netherlands.
The Rotterdam side have been top of the table at the end of each of the 21 weeks of the campaign. Combined with their huge goal difference surplus, a five-point lead over Ajax and a further three over PSV has the southern giants sitting pretty. After opening the campaign with a nine-game winning run, a poor stretch of five with just one win suggested they had reverted to type and crumbled. Since then, however, they have won all seven in the league. With no chance to defend their title in the KNVB Beker after a recent loss to Vitesse and out of the Europa League, they are completely focused on bringing league success back to the fine city.
When the club announced on Monday that they have already sold out each of their remaining home games – unprecedented at this early stage - it gave a sense of just how the excitement is growing around a stadium already known for its palpable atmosphere. In the time of fairytale stories of incomprehensible rise and change such as the British referendum, Leicester City, Donald Trump and RB Leipzig; Feyenoord, while not new and revolutionary, are hoping they too can upset the trends of history.
It adds to the romance that club legend Giovanni van Bronckhorst is the current coach, while the great general Dirk Kuyt is the very embodiment of Feyenoord and Rotterdam’s do-or-die, hard-work-pays-off motto of life.
Kuyt, who returned to the club last season and at 36 remains a first-team regular and captain, has scored seven and set up four in the league this term. “He's so fit that he sometimes makes us young players almost look stupid,” star striker Nicolai Jorgensen said recently. Not only is he keeping up with the young ones with his effectiveness, he has shown his hip side by celebrating goals with references to popular cultural phenomena like the Dab and Salt bae.
Though he may defy his age in many regards, he is a hindrance to the team in others. Kuyt’s focus has shifted from being a goalscorer to one of a creator, sitting in the attacking midfield role, but he fails to provide the imagination needed from that position, so Tonny Vilhena and Jens Toornstra have been forced to adapt to support him, while Simon Gustafson is stuck on the bench - players who could give the forward line a necessary shake. Feyenoord’s wing-heavy style exacerbates this, as Kuyt tends to send the ball out wide, where Eljero Elia and Steven Berghuis pose a threat but, with little variety in their play, it makes for an inefficient Feyenoord.
Van Bronckhorst and Kuyt may be the big names of the tale, but it is one with bigger stars. Karim El Ahmadi has been the key man in midfield, covering large parts of the pitch while even chipping in with more goals this term. Vilhena’s development is back on track after a rough few years. The 22-year-old has earned plaudits for the way he fought to make himself important again, creating chances and being a threat on goal himself. He even has the respect of opponents, as Go Ahead Eagles paid tribute after the death of his mother in their own stadium with a minute’s applause. Meanwhile, Rick Karsdorp and Terence Kongolo are two excellent defenders, playing at right- and left-back respectively. Karsdorp, 21, is lethal going forward, and has the speed and positioning required to still look sound defensively. Kongolo, 22, is stronger at centre-back but does a good job on the left. While he is calm under pressure, he is strong and quick thinking and will be found in a bigger league before long.
The real sensation, however, has been Jorgensen. The league’s top marksman with 15 goals, the 26-year-old Dane is a fantastic finisher and does his fair share for others, making eight assists - he is still their most prolific creator. He is very much the man they have been looking for since Graziano Pelle’s departure. While his movement is good and he has a sound touch and finish, he has a tendency to go missing in games. Eight of his goals have come in the last 10 minutes, often when the game is wrapped up.
There is talent and a lot to work with in Feyenoord’s team, but their setup has its flaws, leading to concerns that teams will find a way to stop them. Their constant crossing and predictable build up makes for some boring play, and although they have picked up some big wins, too often they have had to snatch victory at the death. Against PSV and NEC, they managed to scrape wins, and they avoided defeat with late goals against Ajax and Utrecht. Their strikes at Twente in Sunday’s 2-0 win came in the final 15 minutes. This is a benefit of their persistence and the warrior-like attitude Het Legioen, their fans, take pride in and it is evident in the opportunism and determination of the players.
Defensively, they are soft in the middle. Eric Botteghin has done well since joining from FC Groningen, but alongside Jan-Arie van der Heijden, he is not immediately protected given his slight erraticism. Both centre-backs are rather slow, and though well covered by El Ahmadi, Kongolo and Karsdorp, it is a weak spot teams tend to overlook.
It will be a true test of Van Bronckhorst’s capabilities if opponents do wise up. There are tough games to come, with PSV visiting at the end of the month followed by fixtures against Sparta Rotterdam, fourth-placed Heerenveen, AZ and Ajax before they welcome bottom side Go Ahead Eagles – the only ones to have beaten them so far.
Any slip up could be costly as Ajax are not far behind and have manageable games coming up before they take on the Rotterdammers. But their Europa League campaign is ongoing, and although they have shown improvement under coach Peter Bosz, they are finding it tough to kill weak teams off. With Davinson Sanchez a rock at the back, star man Hakim Ziyech helping connect the attack, Kasper Dolberg looking bright up front and Davy Klaassen proving effective, they are a big danger to Feyenoord.
PSV, meanwhile, are having similar problems to Feyenoord, though they lack the luxury of an excellent striker, as Luuk de Jong is faltering up front. Phillip Cocu’s men focus heavily on the wings and tend to scrape to victories. But Marco van Ginkel’s return on loan should wield positive results – he has scored twice in his four games so far – and the movement of Bart Ramselaar adds to their attack. If they can build on their 4-2 win over AZ, the eight-point gap may not be insurmountable, but their chances of a third consecutive league title look slim.
For Feyenoord, the dream edges closer to being realised, but it is one they have seen disappear before their eyes several times before. This time, a bit more seems to be going in their favour. It is clear not much separates the top three teams and they all have key flaws. That 18 years of hurt is becoming excruciating, though, and in the end it could be their fighting spirit that carries Feyenoord over the line.