The season’s around Europe are all coming to an end and Lee Garrity has his finger on the pulse of the lower leagues. In a series of posts letting us know who’s going up and who’s going down from Europe’s lower leagues next top is the Netherlands.

RKC Waalwijk made an instant return to the Dutch Eredivisie by pipping FC Zwolle to the Jupiler League title in dramatic circumstances. The club from the North Brabant region of the Netherlands pounced at the death to overtake Zwolle who had led the table all season but a poor finish to the season meant only a play off place for the Blauvingers.

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For the 2011/12 season a group of likeminded bloggers are getting together to blog about the excellent and exciting Europa League. Please follow @EuropaLegion for all the latest posts and info. There will not be a new site, just lots of posts on some excellent websites. Here goes my first contribution.

The same day that Liverpool and Spurs locked horns to see who could disrespect the Europa League more. There was disappointed for a few teams in the Eredivisie. Heracles last day win secured their place in the Europa League play-offs meaning FC Utrecht missed out on the chance of European football.

FC Groningen’s failure to beat PSV at the Euroborg meant they couldn’t catch AZ Alkmaar for the last automatic spot. What’s this you say! Teams battling at the end of the season to PLAY in the Europa League. Madness!

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HEERENVEEN V NAC BREDA

August 21st

In a Eredivisie double header that consumed a train journey from Leeds to Glasgow and back again the second part was the meeting between Heerenveen and NAC Breda, both teams lined up in a basic 4-3-3 however there was a different style to each system, more on that later.

Before the systems could be evaluated NAC were 1-0 up, Jong-a-Pin charged out to meet a clearance, Leonardo reacted fastest and laid the ball off to Matthew Amoah (blue), Jong-a-Pin (red) chased back while the other defenders tried to slow Amoah down (yellow) they forgot to pressure the ball. Amoah had time to take his shot, usually meat and drink for Steppe in the Heerenveen net however he made a meal of it, somehow managing to palm the ball into his own net, not the best start for the home side only 44 seconds gone.

NAC started the game really well, both Amoah and Leonardo pressure the ball from the front, giving the back four limited time on the ball, forcing them to pass the ball back to Steppe and then winning back the long clearances, Heerenveen making it easy for the Breda team to keep the ball.

With time to look at the formations the home side played a very traditional 4-3-3 with 6 foot 4 target man Bas Dost flanked by wingers Roy Beerens and Oussama Assaidi, Beerens is very talented able to use both feet, he seemed to always want to take the defender on, in this case Robbert Schilder was the player in his sights, in the opening 30 minutes Schilder did well against the right winger, attack after attack Beerens began to gain the upper hand gaining success by coming inside onto his left foot, linking up really well with Dost and Elm.

NAC Breda’s 4-3-3 set’s up slightly different, it is even a strain to call it a 4-3-3, without the ball the away team kept organised in what could be described as a 4-5-1.

Amoah (red) continued to pressure the back line, Kolkka, Kwakman, Gudelj, Luijckx and Leonardo (all yellow) spread the pitch trying to keep the game tight, Luijckx is the deep lying midfielder monitoring the runs of Assaidi and Dost dropping deep, playing between the lines if you will.

With the ball however the formation changed when they had the ball, Leonardo (red) tucks in from the right to join Amoah upfront, Kolkka (yellow) comes off the touchline and joins Kwakman and Gudelj as the three behind the forwards, Luijckx (blue) remains the deep lying midfielder.

Leonardo showed more desire to get forward and join the attack then Kolkka on the opposite side, Kolkka tended to move inside and link up down the centre, so although it may have been classed as a 4-3-3 when it comes to positions on the pitch it was certainly a little different.

With Beerens and Assaidi starting to take control of the game it wasn’t long until Heerenveen draw level, with the attentions of two defenders on him the Moroccan was still able to get his cross in, a perfect ball towards Dost who held of Breda captain Penders and directed the ball past ten Rouwelaar.

The end of the first half saw Heerenveen take command of the game, giving NAC very little time on the ball, keeping tight on each player, Breda found it very hard to push the ball forward, NAC created very little after the equaliser.

The second half started very slowly, interesting in the second half that Dost starting dropping deeper in deeper taking on the characteristic of the “false 9” Viktor Elm began to get forward into the space more often linking up well with Dost and Assaidi, is was Assaidi that combined well with Beerens for the second goal, cutting in from the left after a neat one two, in an attempt to intercept Luijckx stuck out a foot and unluckily for the midfielder, his attempt did more harm than good, the ball leaving ten Rouwelaar sprawling across his goal in vain as they could only watch it hit the net.

NAC showed no attacking intent in the second half, a mixture of poor movement and passing, and great defending from Heerenveen meant it wasn’t long before the Friesland club wrapped up the game and the three points. Full back Youssef El Akchaoui had been in charge of the set-pieces for the majority of the game and although he wasted numerous good opportunities with 13 minutes to go he finally made one count, the ball was swung in from the right, played into the danger area, it was Dost again who took advantage, sandwiched between Penders and Gudelj he did very well to get his head to the ball and steer it past the keeper, another great use of his physical strength and heading ability, I’m not sure there’s anything the defence could have done to stop him.

A very frustrating day for NAC Breda after a fantastic start they died away after losing the goal and couldn’t find a way back, Heerenveen deserved the points, it was an impressive performance from Ron Jans men, Beerens and Assaidi will cause other teams problems.

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EXCELSIOR v NEC NIJMEGEN

August 20th

After being suitably impressed by Excelsior in their 3-2 victory over city rivals Feyenoord, and curious to find out if this was a one off result or could the small Rotterdam club rise to the expectation and take on the mid-table club from Nijmegen.

Excelsior set up in the same 4-5-1 formation that proved so successful against Feyenoord, their hard work and organisation caused Mario Beem’s side endless problems, not once did Excelsior struggle to contain their neighbours passing game, both goals conceded came through corner kicks.

For the first 20 minutes this Excelsior side looked nothing like the side that chased Feyenoord round the pitch for 90 minutes, NEC had the bulk of possession but without causing Cees Paauwe too many problems in net, Leroy George NEC’s new signing from Utrecht was very busy, always looking for the ball playing on the right of NEC’s 4-3-3, unfortunately for George; Excelsior’s Left Back Miquel Nelom just like he did against Feyenoord was on top of his game, for all George’s tricks and industry he very rarely found his way past the promising 19 year old.

NEC had 68% possession in the first half, the above diagram show’s Excelsior’s failings, NEC’s midfield had so much time on the ball, at no point in the first half did the Excelsior midfield put enough pressure to stop NEC freely passing the ball around the oppositions half, Schone, Zimling and Sibum never looked under pressure this gave George and Goossens space in behind to punish the defence.

Excelsior’s unwillingness to close the ball cost them the first goal, Goossens (red) advanced down the left with the ball was able to take 2 or 3 touches before putting in the cross, Belgian striker Bjorn Vleminckx unmarked in the box had no problem heading past Paauwe, a poor goal defensively to lose and a deserved lead for the away team.

The half time whistle could not come sooner for Alex Pastoor, He most have read his players the riot act during the interval, the “Sir Alex Hair Dryer treatment so to speak, The Excelsior side came on and started with a different attitude not giving NEC time to get into their stride again.

Fernandez the lone front-man was beginning to cause problems, running down each flank, he began to stretch the NEC defence, 8 minutes into the second half and one of his runs paid off, winning a corner for his team, the corner was cleared but only as far as the promising Jordi Clasie the 19 year old met the ball first time with a sweet strike towards goal, Babos looked to have the shot covered before Zimling stuck a foot out the ball wickedly deflecting into the net, disappointing for NEC after their dominance in the first half, however Excelsior had come out of the blocks flying.

Their work-rate and effort had been dramatically improved and, second goal was inevitable. You can see above two midfielders (yellow) closing down Lasse Schone (red), not giving NEC the time and space this half, Schone had to turn his back from goal looking for a pass, Clasie (blue) nicked the ball off the Dane, Clasie set off towards goal a 4 v 3 break for Excelsior, Clasie slipped the ball to Wattamaleo his shot was saved by Babos out for a corner, the corner was swung in and defender Daan Bovenberg got the run on Sibum his marker, left alone for a free header, Babos had no chance, the defenders 2nd goal in 2 games and a deserved lead for Excelsior, plaudits must go to Pastoor for his TeamTalk.

A very scrappy 15 minutes followed, no chances or good football of note, a fierce midfield battle ensued, Koolwijk and Clasie impressive again for Excelsior, Clasie is small in stature but with a low centre of gravity and a tenacious approach on loan from Feyenoord learning his trade at the Stadion Woudestein, it’s hard to predict at 19 how well he will do, but it’s so far so good for the midfielder, NEC’s midfield is not without it’s charms Niki Zimling had a very good game, seems to fit the “box to box” description, hard in the tackle, not afraid to put himself about, and has the ability to pick a pass or make well times runs into the box, it was his midfield partner Lasse Schone that got NEC back into the match, all Excelsior’s hard work seemed to take it’s toll and the pressure on the ball dropped.

Lasse Schone (red) was not closed down by the midfield giving him time to turn with the ball, Vleminckx (blue) made a fantastic run away from the ball leaving the gap for Sibum (yellow) to make a lovely run in behind the defence, with time and space Schone plays a delicate ball over the top and Sibum’s low strike levels the game at 2-2. The run from Vleminckx shows the space between the centre back and full back, an easy gap to exploit, this leaves space down the middle for any willing runners, and Sibum did well to fill the space and deserved his goal.

Excelsior reacted quickly making two substitiutions, that decision would change the game, Jordi Clasie came off to a rapturous applause from the home support, Wouter Gudde came on to solidify the defence then Vincken was replaced by Roland Bergkamp, for all Fernandez hard work down the flanks his crosses were going to waste with no one there to get on the end of them. Bergkamp was tasked with that job, and it instantly paid off. Ryan Koolwijk hit a tame shot towards Babos the Hungarian could only spill it into the path of Bergkamp and he wasn’t going to miss from 6 yards, a shock lead for Excelsior.

NEC tried to fight back but the third goal seemed to kill their spirit then in injury time the game was put out of sight, with NEC pushing further forward, Gudde played the ball over the top, he found Fernandez unmarked and racing towards goal, jinking past the keeper he remained calm and placed the ball past two defenders and into the net.

4-2 the final score, in the end quite an entertaining game, two cliché’s fulfilled in the one match, if you have the lions share of possession you need to make it count, and it really is a game of two halves.

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After Celtic’s tough defeat to Sporting Braga in the Champions League qualifying round, every Celtic fan was hoping for an easier route into the Europa League group stage. But it was not to be, as FC Utrecht’s name came out of the hat.

An unknown quantity to many who do not follow the Eredivisie, there is much to learn about a team that could knock Celtic out of European football, in what would be a disastrous start to Neil Lennon’s season.

Last season Utrecht finished the league in seventh position, qualifying for the subsequent play-off tournament to win the last Europa league place. In the first round they beat FC Groningen 5-1 on aggregate, 3-1 at home and then an impressive 2-0 victory away, with Ricky van Wolfswinkel scoring two goals in the two games.

In the games against Roda JC for the Europa League place, another great away victory was followed by a 4-1 victory at home. Yet Utrecht had only scored 39 games in the regular season but managed to score 11 in four play-off games, demonstrating they are a team not to be messed with in a two leg system.

During the regular season they were a very up and down team, with only two defeats at home conceding 12 goals, eight wins and seven draws. Their away form let them down at times, six wins, four draws and seven defeats, and with no away wins against any of the “big” teams. However they did beat Ajax and AZ Alkmaar at their home 25,000 Galgenwaard Stadium.

Ton du Chatinier is the man at the helm for his first big job, moving up from the post of assistant in 2008 having played 235 games for Utrecht from 1977 to 1987 as a defender. The man he replaced, Foeke Booy, moved upstairs and is now Technical Director. Ex-Rangers coach Jan Wouters is his assistant.

The last trophy Utrecht managed to win was the KNVB cup in 2004, they also won it in 2003, beating FC Twente 1-0 in the final in 2004, MLS veteran Dave van der Bergh with the only goal. In 2003 they beat Feyenoord 4-1 in the final, with now Liverpool and ex-Feyenoord forward Dirk Kuyt, listed as Kuijt back then, scoring the fourth goal.

ANALYSIS

To gain an understanding of how Utrecht play and what kind of threat they will bring, a look at their second leg victory in the Europa League against FC Luzern and the opening game of the Eredivisie season away to Feyenoord were two good games to watch.

Utrecht managed an impressive 3-1 victory in Luzern, showing what a dangerous attacking force they can be. Then against Feyenoord after starting well, they were unlucky to be on the losing side of a 3-1 defeat. Du Chatinier played the same XI in both games. Barring injury, it seemed a very stable selection and all the players looked comfortable with each other, something Celtic as of yet have not looked.

In both games the line-up remained the same starting with what looks like a basic 4-4-2 formation,  however once the game starts there is nothing basic about it, when Utrecht don’t have the ball the positioning looks more like 4-2-2-2 with Lensky and Silberbauer dropping deep to cover the back four, and Mertens and Asare playing very narrow, primarily to keep the midfield tight, make the opposition play wide.

Against Luzern the ball was played diagonally into their box where Schut and Wuytens had no trouble clearing the danger. Then, when they regained possession, it turned quickly more into a 4-1-3-2 and Silberbauer was happy to hold his position, allowing Lensky to push on through the middle and Asare and Mertens provide the width.

The first goal versus Luzern came from a great piece of football, Striker Ricky van Wolfswinkel chased back into the midfield and won the ball back. (1) Lensky and (2) Silberbauer were happy to sit and slow down the fast break, allowing (3) van Wolfswinkel to win the ball back. He then played  a simple ball to Mertens who had drifted into the space between midfield and defence, with no Luzern player tracking his run.

This allowed (4) Asare and (5) Mulenga to find the space, Mulenga playing right on the defensive line keeps both the centre back and full back occupied, in turn drawing the other centre back (6) towards the ball, allowing Asare to attack the space. Mertens then played an easy ball in front of Asare and he showed his ability with both feet to finish on his left foot.

A very simple goal but it showed a great understanding from Utrecht of where the space was on the pitch. Mertens occupied the area van Wolfswinkel would usually be, Mulenga drifted wide on the left and Asare got in behind.

Nine minutes later, Utrecht were 2-0 up again and it was a case of players being intelligent and doing the simple things well. It wasn’t the prettiest build up with goalkeeper Vorm launching the ball forward.

From the picture, you can see the midfield set up in the four with Asare tucking inside. However this goal is mostly down to Mulenga’s physical threat and van Wolfswinkel’s anticipation. Mulenga (1) challenges with both centre backs, he doesn’t win the ball, however it flicks off the head of a defender and (2) van Wolfswinkel is the first to react. With no defenders anywhere near him, he has the simple task of putting the ball past the Luzern keeper, which he does with a touch of class, a little dink, lovely football.

The goal that wrapped up the game doesn’t take much analysis; Silberbauer picked up the ball 45 yards from goal, charges past four Luzern defenders and lofts the ball over the goalkeeper. Yet another lovely piece of individual skill but very poor defending.

Luzern did manage to peg one goal back in the second half and it comes from an area that could be a weakness of the Utrecht side. The attack made it’s way to the left side of Utrecht’s defence, Nesu failed to close the ball down, the cross came in and the ball was flicked to the back post, a lovely header, but too little too late for the Swiss side.

Going forward Utrecht are a very talented side, however they do have weaknesses in defence. Holding a 1-0 lead and keeping out wave after wave of Feyenoord attack, they were finally broken down on the 52nd minute. Wijnaldum found fullback de Vrij flying down the right, his cross could only be turned into the net by Utrecht’s Schut and this seemed to open the floodgates.

The second goal was a disaster defensively. Smolov made a great run forward and draws both (1) centre backs towards him, (2) Silberbauer, Lensky and Asare make no effort to work back and defend, Cornelisse playing at right back is also drawn towards the ball, a goal was inevitable with Cabral (3) free on the left. As an option it was the trailing Luigi Bruins (4) that provided the finish as the ball broke to him on the edge of the box with no one near him, and he was able to pick his spot and fire the ball past Vorm.

Utrecht’s main weakness it seems is on their left side. As fantastic an attacker Dries Mertens seems to be, he is not interested in helping Nesu with his defensive duties. This leaves the Romanian very isolated and with two players working together at times he is left stranded, over the two games, three of the four goals they conceded came from poor defending on the left.

These same principles will also apply to Celtic’s left hand side. Utrecht’s full back Tim Cornelisse can be seen at times covering the centre backs pulling himself out of position, the diagram above shows Cornelisse being drawn towards the ball, and the Feyenoord left winger Cabral is in acres of space on the left.

This is another area Celtic could take advantage of. Against Sporting Braga at home, Samaras played on the left but as he is not a natural winger, very often he wandered inside taking away the option of width on the left. When he was given the ball, his first thought was not to deliver a cross but to come inside and try to create something.

Celtic could benefit from either playing a more natural left-footed player like Joe Ledley or the youthful energy of 19-year-old James Forrest against the 32-year-old full back. The discipline in maintaining width on each flank could be of paramount importance to how successful Celtic can be over the two legs.

Cha Du-Ri could also be a very important player for Celtic over the two legs, despite the defensive frailties he has shown. He has already shown a desire to get forward and his ability to get balls into the box and this could be Celtic’s best route to goal.

Celtic’s midfield will need to play very smart. When Cha makes his runs forward, Juarez, Brown or whomever Lennon picks need to be very wary of Mertens and make sure he is covered, as their first goal against Luzern showed they are very capable of hitting on the counter attack.

Against Inverness on Saturday as Celtic began to dominate the second half Cha Du-Ri’s attacking instincts were very apparent. In the move shown above, Fortune is happy to hold up the ball as Cha makes the overlapping run (1), The midfielder can’t keep up with the full back (2) Cha, who then uses the Inverness defender (3) as a shield to attack the byline.

The three defenders in the centre can only watch as Cha whips in the cross, unfortunately in this attack Maloney’s shot was saved and went behind for a corner. This is a great example of how given a two-on-one match-up, the full backs are very important.

It is not just in the wide areas that Celtic could take advantage. With Utrecht playing with only two natural central midfielders, Lennon’s 4-2-3-1 formation should give Celtic an extra player in the middle of the park. Not only will this be important in the Scottish club retaining possession, the extra player will have space to make forward runs either to link up with the lone front man, but also to put himself on the end of any crosses into the box.

Luigi Bruins was able to score Feyenoord’s second goal because Utrecht’s defence was pulled out of position and he found that pocket of space between defence and midfield, an area where Maloney, Juarez or Ledley could find very fruitful.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Dries Mertens is an exciting young player, only 23 years old after being released by Anderlecht as a youngster he has gone through he Dutch ranks winning player of the season in the Dutch 2nd Division for AGOVV, made his debut for Utrecht in 2009 and went on to score 6 goals in 36 games, a very talented attacking midfielder.

Plays mostly on the left, and as happens in modern football these days he is very right footed, loves to cut inside, a hard player to track and he loves to drift around the pitch finding space to pick up the ball and cause teams problem, there is a touch of the Mesut Oezil about him, good passer of the ball, great ball control, has the ability to rip a defence apart all on his own.

Another exciting young talent for Utrecht is Ricky van Wolfswinkel, in 17 games for Utrecht last year he scored 8 goals and has been rewarded with a call up to the Dutch friendly against the Ukraine later this month, scored 8 goals in his season at Vitesse and looks to be a player to look for in the present not just the future.

He has already scored 3 goals in 2 games in the league and a goal against Luzern in the Europa League he is a player Celtic will need to watch closely, runs the channels well to create space for Mertens and Lensky, also drops deep to collect the ball, for such a young player he is a calm finisher, doesn’t lack confidence in anyway, a very talented striker.

TEAM INFO

A few players in their team that I recognise Michel Vorm is their goalkeeper the 26 year old has 4 Dutch caps, his first competitive game coming at Hampden Park against Scotland in a World Cup qualifier, he was part of van Marwijk’s World Cup squad although never saw any minutes.

Danish midfielder Michael Silberbauer is another player Celtic fans might remember he play for FC Copenhagen for 4 years; he played in the 3-1 victory of Celtic in 2006 and the earlier 1-0 defeat at Celtic Park.

Jacob Lensky is a name a few Celtic fans may remember, I was at Celtic Park when he was brought out at half-time as the next youth prospect the 16 year old would spend 3 years in the academy never playing for the first team, and eventually left to sign his first professional contract with Feyenoord, only ever playing 1 game in 2007, he then quit football in 2008, 4 months later he was training again with 2011 MLS expansion team the Vancouver Whitecaps, he declined a trial with the Seattle Sounders, then in 2009 he signed a one year deal that was then extended with FC Utrecht, he has gone on to play 29 games, he looks to have grown up from his year in Utrecht, reminds me a little of Paul Scholes, not just the colour of his hair, he is able to sit deep and defend however picks his runs well, breaking into the box and causing a threat, also like Scholes he is not afraid to throw in a tackle.

Obviously to retire at 19 and come back you have to question his mentality, when picked for Canada he was asked about the link with the Czech Republic to which he responded.

“Yeah, I love Canada, but in truth soccer is soccer to me. It’s all pretty much the same, so if the Czech team came and asked me – maybe, sure. But they didn’t, so I’m going to the call up just focussing on it and playing my game. Some people don’t like it and that’s ok.”

Not exactly showing full commitment to a countries cause, no surprise he changed his mind, a talented player but a troubled mind.

Although not full of top names, they are a young team with lots of potential, the pundits will make Celtic favourites to win, however both ties will have to be treated with caution if the Glasgow giants want to play European football past August this season.

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