Teenager Arjen Robben's goals have helped PSV Eindhoven's title push in the Netherlands.
By Svend Frandsen
AFC Ajax may have been grabbing the headlines in the Netherlands thanks to a marvellous UEFA Champions League campaign, but PSV Eindhoven's rising star Arjen Robben is set to steal the limelight before the end of the season.
The runaway Eredivisie leaders are eight points ahead of their Amsterdam rivals thanks in no small measure to the goalscoring partnership of the 19-year-old Robben and the more experienced Serbo-Montenegrin striker Mateja Kežman. The pair have scored 38 goals between them this season, with Robben finding the net on eleven occasions.
Such is the teenager's growing stature that Ajax have already attempted to lure Robben to the Dutch capital, but the youngster has no intention of breaking his five-year €5m contract which he signed in the summer of 2001. "Why should I leave PSV?" said Robben. "The club is treating me very well and giving me the time to progress slowly which I might not be offered in other clubs."
The Dutch Under-21 international came to the attention of his country's football community after scoring 50 goals for FC Groningen's youth side in the 1999/00 season although the club at the time felt it was too soon for the teenager to step up to the first-team squad.
Robben did, however, get his opportunity the following season, making his debut as a 16-year-old in December 2000 when coach Jan van Dijk selected him to replace the injured Martin Drent in the left-wing position against Feyenoord. He did not disappoint, giving the experienced Dutch international Kees van Wonderen a torrid time as Groningen recorded a shock 1-0 victory.
Van Dijk enthused over his fledging star after the game, claiming that it had been less of a gamble than some expected to unleash the player at such a young age. "A coach can be criticised for rushing things and bringing in a good youngster too early," said Van Dijk. "Arjen is only 16. However, when you watch him in action it's as if he's been with the first team for six months."
From there on, it was no turning back and Robben went from strength to strength as the campaign progressed. Indeed, his impressive performances earned him the accolade of the club's 2001 player of the season award.
PSV moved quickly to acquire his services for €3.9m, more as a future investment than an immediate first-team player and duly loaned him back to Groningen to continue his development. "It was the right thing to do," said Robben. "It was too early to leave Groningen. I had made a lot of progress since my first-team debut and in Groningen I had the chance to carry on with this development."
The experiment in familiar surroundings was a complete success. Robben returned to Eindhoven full of confidence and quickly established himself in coach Guus Hiddink's starting lineup. He remained undaunted even when performing in Europe, scoring a goal in the 3-0 UEFA Champions League win over AJ Auxerre.
The talented youngster has revealed a remarkable maturity in the midst of his recent success, citing PSV's willingness to take into account his education as a reason to remain at the club. "PSV have enabled me to finish high school which I couldn't have done with Ajax," said Robben. "Over the next year I want to prepare myself mentally in a football sense for PSV and also finish my schooling. I could be badly injured tomorrow and my career would be over - that's why school is important."