High drama on the pitch in Low Countries

Plenty of intrigue this weekend in Netherlands, Belgium soccer leagues


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Watching sports can be an enjoyable, even meaningful, investment of time. As many of us know all too well, the ever-expanding content pool, inevitably spread thin over numerous streaming services, can also max out a credit card. It’s a scenario especially true of world football, what with the sheer breadth of it.

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Watching sports can be an enjoyable, even meaningful, investment of time. As many of us know all too well, the ever-expanding content pool, inevitably spread thin over numerous streaming services, can also max out a credit card. It’s a scenario especially true of world football, what with the sheer breadth of it.

Still, it’s not all bad. If you happen to use a pair of the more prominent apps, you’ll have noticed a number of new, intriguing offerings added quietly over the past few months —leagues and cup competitions that take you off the beaten path.

For example, this happens to be an important weekend in the top flights of the Low Countries, and the biggest matches are available to early-rising Canadian viewers. (Naturally, they can also be recorded.)

First up is Cambuur-Ajax (Sunday, 5:15 a.m., FUBO TV) and John Heitinga’s second game in charge of the reigning Eredivisie champions.

Appointed on an interim basis late last month, the former defender was managing the Ajax reserves before replacing Alfred Schreuder, whose seven-match winless run between November and January saw the Amsterdam giants sink from first to fifth in the standings.

Now, Ajax fans can typically abide a struggling team if it at least entertains, but with a return of three goals from Schreuder’s final four matches there was always going to be a shake-up at Johan Cruijff ArenA. And Heitinga is already providing it. If there was ever a question of the 39-year-old’s standards they were answered in last Sunday’s benching of Brian Brobbey, who hasn’t scored since before the World Cup.

Ajax’s struggles this season—exacerbated by Manchester United’s raiding of its coaching and playing personnel — have opened the door for archrivals Feyenoord to perhaps win a first title in six years and second in twenty-three.

Quite unspectacularly, the Rotterdam outfit have put together a 12-match unbeaten run in the league despite having scored three or more goals on just three occasions. None of their players has claimed a monthly award, although goalkeeper Justin Bijlow leads the Eredivisie with nine clean sheets.

In other words, they’re difficult to break down. If third-place PSV Eindhoven can find a way through at De Kuip (Sunday, 7:30 a.m., FUBO TV), they’ll go into matchday 21 only a point behind the league leaders.

The thing is, they face the second half of the season without their best player from the first.

When forward Cody Gakpo completed his €42 million move to Liverpool in January he immediately left PSV without its top marksman. In fact, the Netherlands international is still second in Eredivisie scoring and first in assists. And if his wasn’t a big enough hole for manager Ruud van Nistelrooy to fill, attacker Noni Madueke became part of the sizeable Chelsea arrival contingent when he transferred to Stamford Bridge last month.

This is now very much Xavi Simons’ team, although the midfield prospect won’t even turn 20 until the spring. Given that they’ve found the back of the net only five times in their last four matches, a defence-first strategy might well become PSV’s approach as well.

Speaking of stingy back-lines, none in Belgium has been quite as ungenerous as Genk’s this term.

Finally enjoying some managerial stability under Wouter Vrancken, the first-place Blauw-Wit have so far conceded less than a goal per game and will be hoping to reprise their September win over Gent when they travel west to Flanders for Sunday’s reverse fixture at the Arteveldestadion (11:30 a.m., DAZN).

Captain Bryan Heynen was the lone goal-scorer that afternoon, in second-half stoppage time no less, and reinforced with his performance a status as one of the best midfielders in the Jupiler League. Not that his burgeoning reputation at home did anything to turn then-Belgium manager Roberto Martinez’s head — a snub former teammate Paul Onuachu admitted had “stunned” him.

Onuachu was similarly surprised that Mike Tresor had been overlooked ahead of the World Cup, and if anyone could attest to the winger’s playmaking ability it would be the Nigerian. The two connected frequently and to devastating effect until the recent transfer period, when Onuachu signed for Southampton.

His absence will pose a significant test to a side that had otherwise come together almost perfectly. Mbwana Samatta, loaned from Fenerbahce, could step into the lone striker’s role, and 19-year-old Kelvin John’s development may be accelerated.

What might end up saving Genk’s title challenge is the start they made to the season. After losing its opener at Bruges, Genk went 16 games without losing, at one point winning 10 in a row. And they’re facing Gent at a good time, what with the Belgian Cup holders languishing in fifth and with only two wins from six.

Finally, it’s Royal Antwerp-Club Bruges that could well provide the Low Countries’ most compelling encounter on Sunday (6:30 a.m., DAZN).

Just six points back of second-place Union Saint-Gilloise, Antwerp are finally rediscovering the form that saw them rattle off nine straight wins to open the campaign. In mid-January they dumped Genk out of the cup, and marshaled by ex-Tottenham centre-back Toby Alderweireld they’ve allowed only a single goal in their last three outings.

Meanwhile, a resurgent Vincent Janssen is now the division’s top goal-scorer not named Onuachu, and Netherlands youth international Jurgen Ekkelenkamp, among the assist leaders, is surely making Ajax regret his exit.

It’s an entirely different story at Bruges.

The reigning champions began the season well enough, and even qualified for the Champions League knock-out stages ahead of Bayer Leverkusen and Atletico Madrid. But a 4-0 hammering at home to Porto signalled an almost immediate downturn in performances that wound up costing manager Carl Hoefkens his job, and he was replaced on New Year’s Eve by Scott Parker.

Things haven’t improved much under the former West Ham and Fulham midfielder. They’re coming off a win — their first since November — but you rarely know what you’ll get with the Blauw-Zwart. Canada winger Tajon Buchanan doesn’t even know where he’ll be playing from match to match.

That said, and as Bruges know all too well, Low Countries football can change fast, and change decisively. It’s actually part of the attraction. And, chances are, if you already stream your sports it’s only a click or two away.

Of course, we could always just watch Chelsea huff and puff for another 90 minutes. But who really wants that?


Twitter @JerradPeters

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