We continue our look at the remaining sides in the UEFA Cup with a mid-season report on Feyenoord.
Although Feyenoord were expected to qualify from the first group stages of the UEFA Champions League, when they did not, there was the consolation of a place in the 2001/2002 UEFA Cup for them and their supporters. At home, the Rotterdam-based club are looking for their first Eredivisie title since 1998/99 and with just over half of the 2001/02 campaign played, they are well placed to achieve that aim and end PSV Eindhoven’s two-year domestic domination: at Christmas they were one point behind great rivals AFC Ajax, having played a game less.
Van Hooijdonk arrives
Coach Bert Van Marwijk wasted no time during the summer of 2001 in snapping up Dutch international striker Pierre van Hooijdonk from SL Benfica after the controversial striker had scored 16 goals in 30 1. Liga games in 2000/01. He immediately struck up a fine understanding in attack with Danish international striker Jon Dahl Tomasson, so much so that they have lost just four games all season, the best record in Eredivisie. And despite selling Polish international goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek to Liverpool FC in September, Van Marwijk’s team have easily the best defensive record in the division, with a paltry 14 goals conceded in 17 games.
Feyenoord found themselves in Champions League Group H when the draw was made for the first group stage of the competition in September, alongside the holders, FC Bayern München, and the champions of the Czech Republic and Russia respectively, AC Sparta Praha and FC Spartak Moscow. With the likes of the aforementioned Van Hooijdonk, Tomasson, captain Paul Bosvelt and Brett Emerton among their ranks, hopes of qualification for the latter stages were high.
However, a total of just two points from their first three group games left them needing a miracle to progress further in Europe’s premier club competition - and this despite a fine fightback in their opening fixture in Moscow when they trailed 2-0 at half-time and came back to draw 2-2. However a humiliating 4-0 reverse in Prague on Matchday Two was followed by letting slip a 2-0 lead against Bayern and as a result, the club was fighting with Spartak for a place in the UEFA Cup.
Subsequently, Feyenoord lost their next two games, at home to Sparta 2-0 and away in Bavaria 3-1 to leave them in danger of dropping out of Europe all together. The strike force that was proving so destructive in the Eredivisie, was drawing blanks when faced with some of Europe’s top defenders, highlighting a gulf in class between the club’s domestic and European challenge. Seven goals scored in six games was never going to be enough to earn Feyenoord a place in the latter stages of the Champions League.
In the end, Van Marwijk was grateful to an injury-time header from Sparta’s Peter Babnic in Moscow which sent his team through to the UEFA Cup third round. This was confirmed in their final Champions League group game when they overcame Spartak 2-0 at home for their only win of the group and an overall total of five points from six games, the lowest total of all the eight sides who finished third in the first group stages of the competition.
A UEFA Cup third-round meeting with 1. Bundesliga outfit SC Freiburg gave Feyenoord an excellent prospect of maintaining their interest in Europe into 2002, but worryingly, the club made heavy weather of the two-legged tie, winning the first leg 1-0 through an 82nd-minute Shinji Ono strike, but looking ragged in the return leg, which ended in a 2-2 draw. At one stage they trailed Freiburg 2-1 on aggregate with half an hour remaining. Luckily though, Van Hooijdonk’s big match experience came to the fore with a stunning free-kick and the team progressed 3-2 on aggregate.
By the time the fourth-round encounter with Scottish Premier League side Rangers FC arrives on 21 February 2002, Feyenoord could also be well placed in their bid to capture the Eredivisie title. Although it would be unwise to write off champions PSV at this stage, it appears as though the title is between Feyenoord and Ajax and a good run in the league will give the team confidence ahead of what is sure to be a tough encounter with Rangers.
Interestingly, if Feyenoord emerge from that fixture victorious and PSV do the same over Leeds United AFC in their fourth round match, a highly explosive all-Dutch clash could be on the cards in the quarter-finals. However, underestimating Rangers would be a mistake. With Dick Advocaat, former coach of the Dutch national team, as their new Director of Football, along with a large contingent of Dutch players in the team (Bert Konterman, Arthur Numan, Michael Mols, Ronald de Boer and Fernando Ricksen) they will certainly be prepared for whatever Feyenoord may throw at them.