Europe is back in Groningen! Not just Europe but the UEFA Champions League! The opening verse of the famous anthem contains the words “they are the best teams” in French and German but I have appropriated this for our Dutch friends on account of this great occasion!
There are two qualification rounds to navigate before we may have a sniff of the Group Stages so expectations are low in Europe. Domestically we’ll be looking to confirm our position as potential contenders and finally giving a good showing in the KNVB Beker.
It was a summer of intense interest in key players as Didier Acevedo and João Ganchas were coveted by clubs across Europe. While Acevedo interested clubs on the level of West Ham and Málaga, Ganchas attracted suitors at the top end of European competition with Arsenal, PSG and Real Madrid among those expressing a desire to move for the Portuguese winger. In the end our resolve remained unbroken and both players will continue to ply their trade at the Hitachi Capital Mobility Stadion for the time being…
We decided to strike up an affiliate agreement with N.E.C. Nijmegen and as such sent out Bram de Vries (DC) and Anouar En Nesyri (DM) on loan for the season to get some first team experience. Sjoerd van der Lei (STC) has a second loan spell, this time with FC Emmen. The final outgoings of the summer are a further two loans, this time to Belgium: Thomas van der Steen (STC/Waasland-Beveren) and Levy Smith (STC/Standard Liège) go out to test their goalscoring ability as we decide what our next step is with the 19 year olds.
We’ve finally brought our incoming loan situation under control with just two borrowed players this season (so far). Ki-Jana Hoever (DR/Liverpool) returns for a second season along with Sjaak ter Avest (AMC/AS Monaco), ter Avest was a player we pursued for a permanent transfer before his transfer from VVV-Venlo to the French Principality. Jeong Woo-yeong (AMRL/FC Bayern) had such a successful spell on loan last season that we moved without hesitation to sign him up permanently when his contract with the German club expired. The same is to be said for Damian Michalak (DC/Legia Warszawa), for whom we met his £4.2m release clause.
European participation means needing a squad with the depth to compete on more than one front, as such we made some shrewd squad signings. Stefan Cvetkovic (DC/Malmö FF) for £2.2m adds to a backline with great potential, giving us the option to convert to three at the back when appropriate. Julián Pérez (MC/Medellín) was a steal at £750k, potentially slotting straight into the first eleven. Amine Moussaoui (STC/SM Caen) is a £2.3m signing with plenty of potential to back up Ali Sen. Adama Yao (AMRL/Lille) was the final fee paying signing of the summer and fits nicely into our current playing style.
The last signing of the summer deserves a special mention. After two seasons at Ajax, Moussa Sissoko (CM) became available on a free. I decided to snap him up with great haste and what a signing! Sissoko gives us options in midfield as well as the chance to move to playing with wingbacks if desired. The best French midfielder of my generation is a superb signing despite his advancing years. I do love an experienced midfielder.
Champions League qualification rounds meant that our pre-season was restricted to just 5 fixtures. A minor blip against Vizela spoiled an otherwise satisfactory pre-season schedule.
Olympiacos were pushed aside much more easily than I had anticipated in a 6-2 aggregate victory before Ali Sen’s extra time winner against KRC Genk gave us the gift of Champions League Group Stage qualification! Amazing! It almost overshadowed the fantastic start to our league season that included 8 goals in 3 matches with one of those against derby rivals sc Heerenveen.
The great run continued into September as we sped to the summit of the league before submitting to Vitesse in our first league loss in 16 matches stretching back to last season! The Group Stage of the Champions League got off to a superb start as we slayed the giants of Inter with a stunning second half performance. Our progression in the KNVB Beker was a welcome sight as we rotated the squad in the midst of a busy fixture schedule.
The Vitesse result seemed to have us somewhat rumbled as we went on to lose convincingly to Lyon and disappointingly to Sparta. Sen’s goal gained us a laboured victory over FC Emmen before an unsuccessful European trip to Porto but an astounding performance against Feyenoord appeared to have us turning the corner again!
The rotated squad came into play again for the KNVB Beker but it was a less pleasing performance against De Treffers. Wins against Twente and SC Cambuur offset a disappointing performance against ADO Den Haag with further losses to Porto and Inter taking us to 4 losses from 5 Group Stage matches.
PSV and Lyon made it the first time we had lost three consecutive matches since season two! However, we recovered to record 4 wins in our next 5 games including progression to the KNVB Beker Quarter Final.
The Champions League ended up being a blow out ater the initial euphoria of our victory against Inter. We exceded expectations by making it beyond the qualifying phase and, as such, I’m happy with the experience… and the money it brings.
Despite a few blips we manage to sit high in the league at 2nd place. Feyenoord are the team who appear to be striding towards the league title this season with Ajax faring particularly poorly – enough to sack Erik ten Hag. PSV started the season slowly but I expect them to come strong, as is the norm, after the winter break.
Without Europe to worry about after Winter we can give our full concentration to the domestic competitions, with a squad big enough to cope with moderate rotation. A KNVB Quarter Final against Sparta awaits us in January along with league fixtures against Heracles Almelo (8th), Ajax (9th) and Helmond (14th).
There is no horror month this time around, although we do have a Feyenoord/Ajax double header in March. We’ll finish the league season off against PSV in April in what could be our most exciting season yet!