Small town club one win away from first Dutch title

FC Twente's coach Steve McClaren speaks with the media in Marseille.
By Emilie van Outeren

FC Twente is on the brink of obtaining its first Dutch premier league title. Manager Steve McClaren and his eclectic mix of players do need to win their last match to keep Ajax at bay on Sunday.

In Spain, Real Madrid is just one point behind Barcelona. In the English premier league, both Chelsea and Manchester United are still vying for the title. The German football competition has yet to be decided between Bayern Munich and Schalke 04. Inter Milan hasn't shaken off AS Roma in Italy. In the Netherlands, the final round of the season this Sunday will determine if Ajax manages to surpass FC Twente or that 'the Tukkers' can really win their very first ever championship.

With the main football leagues in Europe still undecided, the Netherlands is the only country where a traditional outsider is still going for the gold. All Twente has to do is beat NAC Breda on Sunday, and the title is theirs.


A hero in the east

Twente is hardly the first name that comes to mind when one thinks of Dutch football. There was the surprise of AZ Alkmaar winning the league last year, but historically the battle tends to be between rich big-city clubs PSV (Eindhoven), Ajax (Amsterdam) and, to a lesser extent, Feyenoord (Rotterdam). Twente's success, however, is not a one-year-wonder. Under chairman Joop Munsterman, the club had not only regained financial health, it became a force to be reckoned with.The club from Enschede, a town of 157.000 on the German border, has been steadily climbing in the national rankings. The Tukkers, as they are usually referred to, now have an annual budget of 33 million euros. The Amsterdam team hot on their heels spends about twice that.

The man at the helm at Twente, who is getting much of the credit for the top spot, is Steve McClaren, the team's English manager. The mere mention of his name may make many England fans' hair stand on end, but McClaren has become a real hero in the east of the Netherlands.

McClaren left England after a disastrous stint as the country's national coach. When he failed to take the team to the 2008 European Cup, he was sacked and ridiculed in his home country. Instead of dealing with the media critism there, he chose to try his luck at a small but ambitious club abroad. He sought the advice of Bobby Robson, another former England manager and the last to win a major continental European league title, with Porto in 1996. "Go on your own, son. You'll love it," Robson told him.

After coaching the likes of David Beckham, John Terry and Steven Gerard, the stars of his new team were the unknown Marko Arnautovic and Eljero Elia. McClaren took the team to second place in 2009, only to see his best players move on to bigger clubs. Having to construct a largely new formation, Twente was no favourite at the beginning of this season.

Nothing if not efficient

But the wingers McClaren scouted to play alongside veteran striker Blaise N'Kufo proved great additions to the team. Slovakian Miroslav Stoch, on loan from Chelsea, has made his mark on Twente, while Costa Rican Bryan Ruiz has become the real revelation of the Dutch season, scoring 23 goals in the competition. If nothing else, Twente has excelled in efficiency, winning more than half of its games with a one-goal advantage.

Their top position is all the more impressive considering the competition has not had a bad season either. PSV only dropped from the title race after its pace slowed down two months ago. Ajax has lost only three games and scored an impressive 102 goals in 33 matches. It will play NEC Nijmegen in its final match on Sunday.

Fans in Amsterdam still have some hope of winning 'the double', as Ajax has the best chances of winning the Dutch Cup. The capital can boast a showcase full of national and international trophies, but it hasn't won the title since 2004. Back in January, it didn't seem to have a chance this time around either. At that time, PSV led the league by nine points and Ajax relied heavily on its Uruguayan striker Luis Suarez.

But in the second half of the season, other players stepped up their game and the team has become unbeatable at home. Belgian Jan Vertongen and Cameroonian Eyong Enoh form the basis of the strong defence, while Serbian striker Marko Pantelic and Dutch talent Siem de Jong have proven Suarez is not the only one who can score.

'Haven't done it yet'

The formation of manager Martin Jol crushed PSV (4-1) and Twente (3-0) in Amsterdam, and saw their chances grow when Twente lost to AZ two weeks ago. With just one point and two games between them, the pressure was on Twente when Feyenoord came to Enschede on April 18.

All Twente fans could think about was 1974; the only year Twente ever came close to the title before today. That season came to a climax in a head-to-head confrontation between Feyenoord and Twente in the last game. Feyenoord won 3-2 and were crowned the champions.

But Feyenoord, the last team that would want to help Ajax to a title, was no real match for Twente this season. Twente won 2-0 and is confident about its last game against NAC, which is ranked 9th in the league.

"We're optimistic but we haven't done it yet," McClaren has been telling reporters. No one needs to remind him, however, that both Ajax and PSV failed to win in Breda this season.

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