PSV head coach Phillip Cocu has suffered a torrid first season as the club's permanent manager but, after Saturday's 1-0 win over AZ Alkmaar, it finally seems that things could be on the up for the Dutch giants. The Eindhoven club may still be able to salvage something from a very challenging campaign.
Last season's runners-up are already out of the title race, trailing leaders Ajax by an unassailable 14 points with only 14 games remaining. However, following their recent return to form, they can now at least think about securing European football for 2014/15—even if it is via the Europa League.
Holland's second most successful club are still an attractive proposition, but if they are going to attract top players then European football is an absolute must. Despite their inconsistency so far, Europa League qualification is still within the realms of possibility, and here's how they can achieve it.
Georginio Wijnaldum Back From Injury
The pending return of club captain Wijnaldum will be a huge boost for PSV.
Prior to injuring his back in September, the 23-year-old had started the season superbly, and his absence has clearly had a massive impact on Phillip Cocu's team. With four goals in just six appearances, Eindhoven fans have been desperate to see the No. 10 return to action, and it looks like their wait could soon be over.
Liverpool have been linked to a January move for the three-time capped Dutch international, but it seems unlikely that any deal will be agreed until at least the summer so, for now at least, Wijnaldum will be concentrating solely on helping PSV finish the season strongly. If he rediscovers his early season form then there may even be a spot for him in Holland's World Cup squad.
In Wijnaldum's absence, PSV have had to rely on the talent of youngsters Memphis Depay and Jurgen Locadia. While the pair have found the net 11 times between them, no player has really filled the captain's boots in terms of goalscoring, and problems in the attacking third have been Eindhoven's downfall this term.
However, according to the Dutch site Bet.nl, Cocu's side have scored 36 Eredivisie goals, at least seven fewer than each of the five clubs above them, and that will need to improve if they are going to force their way into European contention. With the return of Wijnaldum, along with the addition of Bryan Ruiz, that suddenly looks a lot more likely.
Eindhoven's Strong Defence Key To Success
While the team would love to be more prolific in the final third, head coach Cocu will be ecstatic with his side's defensive unit.
Only Ajax and FC Twente have conceded fewer goals than Eindhoven this campaign, which will be a source of immense optimism around the Philips Stadion. Having represented the club over 250 times during two spells as a player, Phillip Cocu knows that the PSV philosophy is based on a strong defence and will be pleased to see his back line making it so difficult for opposing strikers.
Summer addition Jeffrey Bruma deserves a lot of praise for how well he has settled into his new team, and the Dutch international has definitely shored up the Eindhoven defence. Former club Chelsea insisted that they would only sell the 22-year-old on the condition that a buy-back clause was installed and that alone tells you how highly the youngster is rated.
He made his Holland national team debut in 2010 and will be in Louis van Gaal's plans ahead of this year's World Cup in Brazil. Bruma has been a key member of the PSV team so far and could be pivotal to the club's ambitions between now and the end of the season.
However, the entire back line should take a share of credit. Another key influence has been defensive midfielder Stijn Schaars, who has put his experience to great use by helping the youthful defence throughout the campaign. The 30-year-old has made that holding role his own since joining from Sporting Lisbon last summer, and his impact cannot be overlooked.
Schaars is one of only two players within the PSV squad to have passed his 30th birthday—the other being Park Ji-Sung—so his input has been invaluable not only in assisting the defensive line but also in allowing the likes of Adam Maher to attack without worrying quite so much about individual defensive duties.
The spine of PSV's team is one of the strongest in Dutch football, and that should definitely help in their quest for European qualification.
Dark Days Finally Over
Toward the end of 2013, PSV simply couldn't buy a win. A string of woeful results saw them crash out of the Europa League and, more tellingly, drop into Eredivisie mid-table obscurity.
However, Cocu's side appear to have recovered from those troubles and are now back on the road to success.
Saturday's win was the third victory in four outings, with the only defeat over that period coming away to leaders Ajax. The three points saw PSV climb to sixth in the table and, while they remain 12 points adrift of Champions League qualification, a Europa League place is once again starting to look a far more achievable target.
The 1-0 triumph over AZ was impressive as not only did it allow PSV to leapfrog their Eredivisie rivals, but the manner of victory also demonstrated Eindhoven's ability to control games—particularly when they are leading.
After defender Jetro Willems opened the scoring just three minutes in, PSV looked comfortable throughout. AZ were limited to scraps in the final third, and although they did register more shots on target, they never really looked like scoring. Eindhoven stopper Jeroen Zoet was forced into a couple of fairly decent saves, but he would have been extremely disappointed if he'd been beaten by any of them.
While PSV's attacking problems were once again highlighted by the fact that they had to rely on a full-back's goal to get the full three points, their overall play was fairly decent. The game was far from spectacular for the neutrals, but that won't bother Cocu. The manager will have been pleased to see his side establish the early lead before running out relatively easy winners.
Next up for PSV are trips to 17th-placed RKC and Eredivisie new boys Cambuur. With confidence restored, you would expect Eindhoven to take a minimum of four points from those two games, and if they can follow that with victory over FC Twente in their next home game then suddenly they will look back on track to cement a place in the Europa League next season.
Everybody associated with the club will believe that the campaign's darkest moment is now in the past and will be optimistic about the rest of the campaign. Without the distractions of any cup competitions, PSV have no excuses for failure.