Mounir El Hamdaoui’s eye-catching form for AZ has not gone unnoticed by Europe’s bigger clubs.

By Klaas-Jan Droppert in The Hague
When he used to wander the playgrounds of Rotterdam with his childhood friend Robin Van Persie, Mounir El Hamdaoui was instantly recognisable as a highly talented individual. But while Van Persie exchanged the urban streets for life in the fast lane at Arsenal via Feyenoord, El Hamdaoui’s breakthrough at the top level looked as though it might never come.

But this season the 24-year-old has finally started to fulfil his potential, playing an eye-catching role in AZ Alkmaar’s first championship triumph for 28 years.

It was a rather bumpy ride to success, though. Starting out at Feyenoord’s former satellite club Excelsior, he never progressed to playing at De Kuip. Instead, Martin Jol rather surprisingly signed him for Tottenham Hotspur, where injuries and stiff competition from Dimitar Berbatov, Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe were among the reasons why he never made his Premier League debut. He was sent on loan to Derby County but played only 14 matches, in two spells, before another injury finished his season.

El Hamdaoui returned to Holland and moved to Willem II to make a new start, but after just two matches he suffered a severe cruciate ligament injury which took him nine months to recover from.

So AZ coach Louis Van Gaal was taking a huge risk when he signed the injury-prone striker for around £4.5million in August 2007.

At one stage it looked like history would repeat itself. In a horrible first season, in which AZ finished 11th, El Hamdaoui was never a key player, often starting on the bench and scoring only seven goals. No wonder Van Gaal said that, with the arrival of Brazilian striker Ari, his chances would be limited this season.

But instead it proved to be a turning point.

A slimmer and more focused player returned to Alkmaar at the start of the season and, with Van Gaal opting for a counter-attacking 4-4-2 system, El Hamdaoui and Moussa Dembele formed a highly effective partnership up front. Helped by the presence of ex-strikers Patrick Kluivert and Shota Arveladze on the coaching staff, El Hamdaoui has combined technical ability with a prolific strike rate to top the Dutch league’s goalscoring charts.

His resurrection hasn’t been missed by Holland coach Bert Van Marwijk, either, who looked into the possibility of calling up a player who was born in Holland but whose parents are Moroccan.

El Hamdaoui played for Holland Under-21s but then chose to represent Morocco. After making a couple of friendly appearances for the Atlas Lions, he fell out of favour and was prepared to switch his loyalties back to Holland – until FIFA decreed that opting for his parents’ country before his 21st birthday was irreversible. Now, four years after making his international debut, he is part of Morocco’s World Cup campaign.

With hordes of scouts packing out AZ’s DSB stadium all season, El Hamdaoui’s name has come to the attention of several German and Spanish clubs – even though Van Gaal will hope to keep the same team for next season, arguing that they could make progress in the Champions League if they stick together.

El Hamdaoui he will certainly play in Europe’s most prestigious club competition next season. The only question is: will he be at debutants AZ or a more established competitor?