The Alkmaar club are on course to win their first title since 1981.
By Klaas-Jan Droppert in The Hague
Back in September, after AZ had lost 3-0 away at Den Haag, coach Louis Van Gaal claimed that his side had “played their best match for six months”.
Most of Holland thought Van Gaal had finally flipped. A club record of 26 unbeaten league matches later and AZ are heading for the second title in their history, with their former Ajax, Barcelona and Holland boss obviously not yet ready for the psychiatric hospital.
Even withstanding a coach’s natural instinct for expressing unconditional faith in his players, Van Gaal took a risk with that statement. The Alkmaar club had finished in an undignified 11th place last season and continued a disastrous run of form with defeats in their first two league games of the current campaign.
Pundits were convinced that AZ chairman Dirk Scheringa would either sack Van Gaal or that the coach would resign, something he had planned to do last season before being talked out of it by his players.
After the defeat at Den Haag, AZ prepared to face champions PSV with many waiting for the axe to fall on Van Gaal. Instead, a 1-0 win sparked the start of a highly successful campaign.
Van Gaal blamed the Beijing Olympics, in which AZ were represented by nine players, for disrupting his preparations for the new season, but there are other factors that need to be taken into account.
The return of the injured midfielders Stijn Schaars and Maarten Martens, plus reserve goalkeeper Joey Didulica, as well as the departure on loan of disruptive influences Boy Waterman (Den Haag) and Ryan Donk (West Bromwich Albion) restored discipline to the dressing room. The presence of assistant coaches Patrick Kluivert and Shota Arveladze is doing AZ no harm, either.
On the pitch Van Gaal has changed his tactics. The days of pressurising the opponent’s half are over. AZ play a waiting game, defending in their own half and then quickly using the counter attack.
Statistics have proved Van Gaal right. AZ kept a clean sheet in 21 of their opening 28 league matches with Argentinian goalkeeper Sergio Romero remaining unbeaten for 955 consecutive minutes.
Van Gaal remains committed to signing talented youngsters and it’s a policy that has given AZ a balanced team with few superstars.
If one player has to be picked out it would be Mounir El Hamdaoui. The Rotterdam-born Morocco international has frustrated many with his inconsistency, not least the staff at Tottenham Hotspur, where he once languished in the reserves. But the 24-year-old striker, who is more a provider than a finisher, is the league’s top scorer with 20 goals this term and he is said to have caught the eye of Barcelona.
AZ haven’t done it by themselves though. They have been greatly helped by their rivals Ajax, Twente and PSV all dropping points. At the winter break AZ were only three points ahead of Ajax. With six matches remaining, the gap has risen to nine (Twente), 12 (Ajax) and 21 points (PSV) respectively.
Van Gaal still refuses to talk about the title, probably recalling that his team had lost the trophy on the final day two years ago, but it’s hard to imagine lightning will strike twice.
So AZ look to set to win their second title. Their first, 28 years ago, was the last time a club outside Holland’s big three (Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord) finished on top. Not everything is going smoothly, though. Keeper Romero made a costly mistake in a 2-1 defeat against NAC Breda in the Cup quarter-final and took out his frustration on the dressing room was. He broke his hand and is out of action for the rest of the season.
Meanwhile, Holland’s No1 keeper Maarten Stekelenburg is fit again but cannot persuade Ajax coach Marco Van Basten to pick him ahead of Kenneth Vermeer.
Stekelenburg’s lack of action was such a headache for national coach Bert Van Marwijk that he asked Edwin Van der Sar to come out of international retirement, but the Manchester United No1 refused the invitation.
And in a coup for Heerenveen, it has been announced that Serbia Under-17 captain Filip Djuricic, who has been dubbed the “Balkan Cruyff”, will join the club from Radnicki Obrenovac on a two-and-a-half year contract in January. Macedonia Under-19 striker Samir Fazli will also link up with Heerenveen from Makedonija GP Skopje in July.