‘The confidence is back,’ said a satisfied Feyenoord head coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst on Friday afternoon, two days ...
The eleven men that start Sunday’s traditional season opener will not necessarily form the team that kicks off the Eredivisie season at FC Groningen in a fortnight. Coach Erwin Koeman plans on using three matches in six days against top-tier English opposition to get it clear in his own mind what his best team is. ‘We’ll know more about where we stand next Saturday,’ says Koeman, who has a few question marks throughout his side ahead of the first of those matches, when Middlesbrough visit De Kuip.
The Feyenoord starting eleven is starting to take shape as the start of the season draws closer. At right back it looks like Serginho Greene enjoys the confidence of his coach. Koeman refuses to say as much – ‘it depends on how Collen does for instance’ – but Greene has played in that position a lot in preseason. Elsewhere, Ron Vlaar and André Bahia look good bets to form the central defensive partnership. The only unknown variable in defence is right back, where Pascal Bosschaart has a worthy challenger in young gun Royston Drenthe. ‘Royston is certainly a candidate,’ admits Koeman.
The midfield appears to pick itself too. Koeman would like to bring in another midfielder, but until that day Nicky Hofs, Jonathan de Guzman and Theo Lucius appear to be shoo-ins. First choice on the right is Romeo Castelen, but he won’t be starting Sunday’s game, after only rejoining training Friday. More likely is a place on the bench for the Dutch international, with De Ceulaer an expected stand-in. Joonas Kolkka has impressed his coach on the left, which would raise the question as to whether Stein Huysegems can count on a place in the first eleven. ‘We got Joonas because he gives us depth among other things,’ says Koeman. ‘But up to now he’s done well. He’s a real pro, an aficionado with great basic technique.’ The coach declines to draw any immediate conclusions however.
The goalie’s position is another hot item. Prodigal son Henk Timmer gets his chance Sunday, while Patrick Lodewijks will get the nod Tuesday against Chelsea. On the basis of what he sees in those two games Koeman will then designate his first-choice keeper for the start of the season. ‘The next few matches will clarify a lot,’ confirms Koeman. ‘After this tough week we have one more to prepare for the league. But I only have a small group that week because the internationals are playing. So after these three matches we’ll know where we stand.’
Sunday’s opponents are sure to be looking for a good performance against the Rotterdammers too. The De Kuip clash is a serious test for a side led by the Premiership’s youngest manager Gareth Southgate and with Chelsea and Arsenal among the opposition in the opening weeks of the season, Boro will have to hit the ground running.
The Teesiders will certainly be hoping for more consistency this term, after a hit and miss campaign last time round, when they made their mark in Europe but flirted with relegation domestically. The club’s Uefa Cup run was one legends are made of. The quarterfinal saw them turn a 0-3 deficit against FC Basel into a 4-3 victory and as if that wasn’t enough they repeated the feat in the semis against Steaua Bucharest. The final proved a bridge too far for Boro though, as they were crushed by Seville in Eindhoven.
In the league it was a different story, as the northerners experienced a mid-term slide down the table that threatened to end in relegation to the Championship. But with the fans increasingly calling for Steve McLaren’s sacking – especially after a seven goal drubbing at Arsenal – Middlesbrough took Chelsea to the cleaners, winning three nil at the Riverside. It was the trigger for a mini-run that saw the side secure its Premiership survival with games to spare.
Middlesbrough, whose trophy cabinet is limited to a few lower-tier titles and a 2004 League Cup, will meet Feyenoord without striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. The Dutchman moved to Charlton Athletic in the summer. The club that has also employed Boudewijn Zenden and Michael Reiziger in the past now has just one Dutch player – Feyenoord academy product George Boateng, who has made no secret of his desire to return to the club before he ends his career.
Feyenoord – Middlesbrough
Sunday 6 August, 14:30 at De Kuip
Probable Feyenoord line-up:
Timmer; Greene, Vlaar, Bahia, Drenthe (Bosschaart); Hofs, De Guzman, Lucius; De Ceulaer, Kuyt, Huysegems.
Referee: Van Dongen