Two down, one to go. After what had already been a very productive weekend the final leg of the Benelux journey took us another 296km firstly to Breda, the town where we would stay the night, and secondly on to Waalwijk for an early Sunday afternoon kick-off. The Dutch Jupiler League is the country’s second tier of football (not to be confused with the Belgian top-tier championship of the same name). For the home team, who were relegated from the top-flight last season, dreams of an imminent return to the Eredivisie heightened as a result of this match.
We arrived at the Mandemakers Stadion basking in the sunshine and still slightly worse for wear following a good night on the beer some hours earlier. With the mileage of the trip starting to take its toll on all of us the early kick-off at least ensured that we had to be in some way fit for the Sunday ahead. Nonetheless we had all agreed before the weekend that we expected this game to have the most quality on the pitch and we weren’t wrong. RKC Waalwijk, a club whose initials let you know of the club’s Roman Catholic roots, have spent most of the last twenty years in the top flight and expect to come straight back up whenever they go down. CS Cambuur, their visitors from the town of Leeuwarden, are a club of more modest targets and last tasted Eredivisie football over a decade ago but still went into the game knowing that they had a chance of qualifying for the promotion play-offs.
The game kicked off to a colourful banner from the home support and they had something to shout about just eleven minutes when Robert Braber gave RKC the lead following a defensive error. Twenty minutes later Ghanaian forward Fred Benson doubled the home side’s lead following a move which one could politely describe as route one. RKC Waalwijk were coasting the game and the modest away support of SC Cambuur – all 26 of them (I counted them at half-time) – had to suffer further in the second half as Benson grabbed his second of the game in the 53rd minute from the penalty spot. Donny de Groot bagged the fourth of the game for the home side in the 90th minute but SC Cambuur, who were a distant second best in the match, could at least celebrate a consolation strike from Kevin Diaz in stoppage time.
The game finished 4-1 to RKC Waalwijk much to the joy of the home support who knew that their team had accumulated the most number of points in the fourth period of the season and, at the very least, guarantee play-off football if not automatic promotion. FC Zwolle stand between RKC and first in the standings with the two teams due to fight it out next week but for now there was something to celebrate as the Waalwijk players reached for the champagne at the end of the match. As for myself and my fellow Eintrachtler our Groundhopping tour was now officially over and we headed back to Breda for a much deserved beer or ten. After all, having witnessed fourteen goals in three games spread throughout three countries in three days we were just as worthy of alcohol as any of the footballers we’d seen.
WATCH RKC WAALWIJK v SC CAMBUUR HIGHLIGHTS
With the exception of England, Scotland and France, most of the league championships in Europe have taken a well earned break for Christmas time. “Stoppage Time” reviews the season so far in Europe’s top leagues:
This looks like it will be a two horse race between arch-rivals FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Spanish, European and World champions FC Barcelona (39 points from 15 games) hold a slim two point advantage over ‘El Real’ whose performances haven’t always been great but whose capability of getting results has improved. Sevilla looked for a while like a potential ‘stalking horse’ candidate for the title, keeping close to the top but they have slipped off the pace in recent weeks. At the bottom of the table newly promoted sides such as Xerez (7 points from 15 games) and Real Zaragoza have found the going tough. A traditional giant of the Spanish game, Atlético Madrid find themselves just one point from the cellar after a string of poor displays.
FC Internazionale of Milan (39 points from 17 games), including striker Samuel Eto’o (pictured) find themselves in charge of Serie A yet again. Going for a fifth consecutive championship, the Nerazzurri’s only challengers to date appear to be local enemies AC Milan, who are eight points behind with a game in hand. The Rossoneri have come back strongly after a really poor start under the stewardship of Leonardo. Juventus appeared to be going well under new coach Ciro Ferrara but have lost their last three games and remain a point further behind Milan having played a game more. At the bottom of the league six points separate Udinese in 14th place from AC Siena in last place (12 points after 17 games), signalling that a tight relegation battle could be just around the corner.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen (35 points from 17 games) remain unbeaten to be crowned the unofficial “Herbstmeister” (autumn champions) in the Bundesliga. However the ‘Werkself’ (Work’s Eleven) have drawn a lot a games meaning that their lead is a narrow one point margin from nearest challengers Schalke 04, who have done well considering their financial troubles. Despite Bayern Munich’s less than impressive start to the season the Bavarian giants are a further point behind Schalke. Louis Van Gaal has withstood the criticism and has guided Bayern to third place at the halfway stage with 33 points. The surprise of the season so far is 1. FSV Mainz 05, who were promoted from the second division last season, who have a respectable eighth place finish after 17 games. Hertha Berlin is the surprise team at the bottom of the table (6 points/17 games), all the more surprising considering they won on the opening day against Hannover 96. Other big clubs close to the bottom are 1. FC Nürnberg, who sacked their coach Michael Oenning on Monday, and VfB Stuttgart, who replaced Markus Babbel with former Tottenham Hotspur coach Christian Gross in early December.
The Portuguese Superliga normally has three contenders for the title but one of this year’s contenders is an unfamiliar one: Sporting Braga. They lead the table jointly with SL Benfica (33 points from 14 games) with perennial champions FC Porto four points behind. Many hope that Braga can keep up with the big two especially since the tradional third power of Portuguese football, Sporting, are struggling domestically (21 points/14 games) but performing well in Europe. Also many remember last season’s surprise package Leixões, who led the table early on in 2008-09, falling away late in the season. Could Braga really become only the sixth club (after Benfica, Porto, Sporting, Belenenses and Boavista) to win the Portuguese championship? At the bottome Leixões’ glory days from last season are well and truly behind them as they now are fighting against relegation lying just one point above the bottom two clubs Olhanense and Belenenses (10 points/14 games).
Steve McClaren has done an impressive job at FC Twente (47 points/17 games) thus far and he’s already hoping to go one better than last season. The club from Enschede were runners-up in both league and cup in 2008-09 but McClaren’s men currently lead the Eredivisie by two points from PSV Eindhoven. PSV’s coach Fred Rutten has given new purpose to the Philips owned club after they lost direction last season under Huub Stevens which led to them weakly giving up their run of four consecutive titles. Ajax, coached by Martin Jol, have suffered a few defeats and are nine points off the pace. Their arch-rivals Feyenoord Rotterdam have also been rejuvenated under new coach Mario Been and a further point behind having played a game more. At the bottom RKC Waalwijk (12 points/18 games) will hope to avoid the automatic relegation spot at the end of the season as they are not far off the teams above NEC Nijmegen, ADO Den Haag and Willem II Tilburg.
It’s the same old story in Greece as champions Olympiakos Piraeus are involved in a two-way tussle with league leaders Panathinaikos (38 points/15 games) for the championship. As usual PAOK Thessaloniki threaten to make a fight of it but end up dropping too many points but they should easily get a place in Europe. Athen’s third club AEK have struggled for form and consistency in both Greek and European competition thus far and lie in eighth place on 21 points. At the bottom of the table it’s been a dreadful time for promoted Panthrakikos who remain without a win after fifteen games. They have only two points at this stage and are dead certs for the drop. Above them the likes of Giannina, Levadiakos (14 points), Larissa and Iraklis (15 points) will hope to avoid joining them in the second division next season.
The Turkish Superlig could be one of the most exciting for years. Fenerbahçe (37 points/17 games) lead at the halfway stage by just one point from eternal rivals Galatasaray. Then there are two unexpected title chasers in Bursaspor and Kayserispor (35 and 34 points respectively) as well as last season’s champions Beşiktaş (32 points). “Fener” will miss on the services of Roberto Carlos after the winter break as he heads back to Brazil to finish his career at Corinithians. Last season’s surprise package Sivasspor struggled in the early weeks of the season but will hope that they can take recent good form into the second half of the season. They are ten points ahead of second bottom Denizlispor (7 points/17 games) and seventeen ahead of Ankaraspor who are pointless (numerically speaking, of course) at the halfway stage and look certain for the drop.