Luciano Narsingh: The great comeback
The surprising result at Amsterdam Arena on Sunday, with PSV Eindhoven beating Ajax 3-1, was significant in more ways than one.
Not only did the visitors come from behind in the second half to retain a perfect record after three games and send a clear message of intent in what promises to be a serious challenge to win their first title since 2008, but there was also an emotional story of Luciano Narsingh, who has finally put a lengthy nightmare behind him to make all the headlines.
Just two years ago, in the summer of 2012, Narsingh's career seemed to be on the right track. The winger has finished a superb season at Heerenveen, providing a league-best 22 assists (Christian Eriksen, then of Ajax, was a distant runner up at 17), as well as scoring eight goals himself.
He was delighted to get a call to the national team and sensationally made the final cut for Bert van Marwijk's Euro 2012 squad, even though he didn't feature in any of the three Netherlands games at the tournament.
The return of Louis van Gaal, famous for nurturing young talents, as the national coach only made matters better for Narsingh, who scored his debut goal for Oranje in the "derby" versus Belgium and proceeded to cap a great performance against Turkey in the World Cup qualifiers with another neat finish.
Narsingh's success at Heerenveen made him a sought-after rising star. Fulham were reportedly negotiating, and even Liverpool were mentioned as a possible destination, but in the end it was a direct fight between Ajax and PSV.
The choice was rather tough for the player who was thrown out of Ajax academy at the age of 16 by youth coach Maarten Stekelenburg -- not to be confused with the famous goalkeeper who coincidentally goes by the same name.
"I was born in Amsterdam, and Ajax are my club", Narsingh said back in 2012 when explaining why he preferred to sign for PSV. "I had a good conversation with Frank de Boer; he told me how he intends to use me, and it sounded good, but in the end I just didn't want to go back."
It is easy to understand why.
Narsingh's dream was shattered when Ajax let him go, and it took him a long time to recover and believe that he can be a professional footballer nevertheless.
Promoted to Heerenveen's first team at the age of 18, he waited for two years to get a decent opportunity, and only the arrival of attack-minded coach Ron Jans enabled him to fulfill his potential. He began to set up countless scoring chances for Bas Dost, the burly centre forward who netted 32 times in 2011-12 season and earned a transfer to Wolfsburg.
Moving back to Amsterdam could've been great for Narsingh, but he felt like looking forward instead, and PSV gave him everything he needed to make the next step with Dick Advocaat as a coach.
The start was brilliant. Narsingh was the big signing (by Eredivisie terms) for four million euros, and he made a place on the right wing his own, with Belgian star Dries Mertens starring on the left. PSV thrashed Ajax 4-2 in the Super Cup, won 11 out of 13 first games and comfortably led the table. By December, Narsingh bagged six goals and five assists.
Then disaster struck.
Nobody fully understood that when the winger limped off the pitch in the last fixture of 2012, versus NAC Breda, but a few weeks later it became evident that the knee injury he suffered was very serious. Surgery was needed to reconstruct his frontal cruciate ligament and work on the meniscus, and the season that began so well was suddenly over.
By the time Narsingh was back last October, Advocaat was already gone, Phillip Cocu was the new coach and the team was running without him. Getting into form proved to be difficult, especially for a player whose style is based on lightning speed and sharp movements. His whole career seemed to be in jeopardy.
In March, Narsingh openly talked about his troubles. "My right knee doesn't feel like the left one, and at times there is stiffness. Doing exercises with physical therapist helps a lot, and I am on the right way, but the progress is slow. It is taking longer than I expected."
Naturally, Cocu didn't want to gamble on Narsingh and rush him back. The winger wanted to play but had to sit on the bench more often than not, starting just eight league games. PSV even signed Costa Rican star Bryan Ruiz on loan from Fulham for the second half of the season, further reducing Narsingh's chances.
"The coach knows that I want to go to the World Cup," the winger said, but any hopes of making the squad were gone very fast. Some doubted if the 23-year-old would ever be able to put an orange shirt on again.
Such scepticism became even more justified when Narsingh remained on the fringes of the PSV squad at the beginning of the new season. Cocu preferred to use Jurgen Locadia, a natural center forward, on the right wing in the games versus Willem II and NAC, but it all changed on Sunday in the biggest fixture of them all.
Narsingh was somewhat surprised and delighted to see his name in the starting lineup at Amsterdam Arena, and it was immediately obvious that he absolutely must make the most of this phenomenal opportunity. He has done just that.
Narsingh lost all his previous league games against Ajax with both Heerenveen and PSV, but this time it was a very different story.
With 52 minutes gone and the champions leading 1-0, the winger got the ball in his favourite spot on the right, burst forward totally outpacing Joel Veltman and set up Memphis Depay for the easiest goal of Depay's career -- the new Netherlands sensation needed only to tap the ball into the empty net.
Eleven minutes later, Narsingh completed the turnaround himself when receiving a superb through ball from ex-Newcastle flop Luuk de Jong and expertly beating Jasper Cillessen with an angled shot. This was his first goal since the injury if we don't take the reserve team fixtures into account, and the timing simply couldn't have been better. Finally, more than 18 months after the surgery, Narsingh was back with a performance that reminded of his great days at Heerenveen.
"It's good to be important again. We knew that there will be spaces behind Ajax defence and managed to take use of them in the second half," the happy winger said.
A phenomenal comeback and a very sweet revenge against the club that didn't believe in him at the same time -- was it possible to ask for more?
Little has been achieved yet, though. Continuity will be vital after such a triumph, and Narsingh will have to be mentally strong to perform at the highest level on weekly basis. If he manages to do so, Guus Hiddink would have to take notice and recall him into the squad, as Netherlands need a reliable backup to Arjen Robben. The sky is the limit again for the tricky Amsterdam native.
Michael is an experienced European football writer, who contributes to ESPN, Blizzard, Champions and FourFourTwo, amongst others.