By Stefan Coerts
Madness. That is perhaps the best way to describe the start of the Eredivisie season.
In the Bundesliga, a team trailing the table-toppers by six points would be fourth, in Serie A fifth and in La Liga fourth, too. But whereas in Germany, Italy and Spain the usual suspects have tightened their grip on the league, things are different in Netherlands. Ahead of matchday nine, Go Ahead Eagles are trailing league leaders Twente by just six points, yet the newly promoted side have to settle for 15th place.
The fact that eight teams were in contention for top spot ahead of this weekend's games says quite a lot about the competitiveness of the Dutch top tier. Traditional powerhouses Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord no longer possess the quality to stroll to routine wins week after week, while every 'smaller' side is seemingly capable of causing an upset with the right attitude and tactical plan.
Sadly enough, this new-found competitiveness has little to do with the strength of the so-called smaller teams, but all the more with the demise of the big clubs, with Ajax the standout example this term after PSV and Feyenoord had already fallen off their perch in previous years.
Just two months ago, the Amsterdam giants will have felt rather optimistic about their chances of winning the Eredivisie title for the fourth time in succession, something the club has never achieved before. Not only had they just won the Johan Cruyff Shield to start the 2013-14 campaign on a high, but it also seemed as if their three undisputed star players - Siem de Jong, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen - would all stay put.
Fast forward eight weeks and head coach Frank de Boer finds himself in an entirely different situation. Skipper De Jong indeed remained at Ajax, but both Eriksen and Alderweireld said farewell to the Amsterdam ArenA in the closing stages of the summer transfer window, resulting in yet another troublesome start to the season for the Godenzonen.
The fact that Ajax have won just four out of their opening eight league games is not the biggest reason for concern for De Boer, though. The capital club have traditionally struggled in the first half of the season in the past few years, yet have managed to overcome a slow start time and time again under De Boer.
What will concern the 43-year-old, however, is that he no longer has someone in his squad who can make the difference when it matters most. Someone like Eriksen. The attacking midfielder did not always get the recognition he deserved during his time at Ajax, but there's little doubt that his replacement Lerin Duarte is on a completely different level - and on the wrong side of the scale.
Young winger Viktor Fischer currently seems the only attacking player who has the potential to make the step up to one of Europe's traditional powerhouses in the future, but the Dane remains hugely inconsistent and one cannot expect the 19-year-old to lead his side through tough times.
That's not to say retaining the Eredivisie title is mission impossible for Ajax, though. Like the Amsterdam side, fellow title contenders Feyenoord and PSV have their fair share of problems, too, the former lacking depth and an alternative to star striker Graziano Pelle, the latter a team in transition after the departures of Kevin Strootman, Dries Mertens and Jeremain Lens among others.
This means Ajax remain one of the favourites for the Eredivisie title, even if it will not be a walk in the park like it eventually turned out to be in the last two seasons after impressive winning streaks in the second half of the season.
As for the club's European ambitions, this week's draw against AC Milan all but ended their dreams of reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League for the first time since 2005-06 after just two games.
Eredivisie sides have not been able to compete with the big guns in Europe for quite some time now due to their limited financial resources and Ajax's inability to beat a dire Milan at the ArenA was further confirmation that they are no longer a force to be reckoned with in Europe.
There are still four games to go in Group H, but finishing ahead of Celtic in order to book a ticket for the Europa League knockout stages seems to be the best possible outcome already.
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