AZ Alkmaar challenge the Dutch “big three”

A YEAR ago, Ajax were the darlings of Europe as they disposed of Juventus and Real Madrid and looked set to reach the UEFA Champions League final. In 2020, Ajax have left the European stage already having lost to Getafe in the Europa League, and they are being seriously challenged at the top of the Eredivisie.

Ajax were recently beaten by AZ Alkmaar at the Johan Cruyff Arena, a result that put the victors level on points with their hosts and reminded the Amsterdam club’s fans that they are going to have to fight hard if they want to regain their domestic title.

AZ’s win completed the double over Ajax (they won 1-0 earlier in the campaign at home) and have, uniquely, emerged triumphant at all three of the Netherlands’ blue riband clubs, having won 3-0 at Feyenoord and 4-0 at PSV Eindhoven.

 

Key facts: AZ Alkmaar

Founded 1967
Nickname Cheeseheads
Home ground AFAS Stadion (17,023)
Average gate 10,522 (2019-20)
Major honours 2 x Eredivisie title; 4 x KNVB Cup wins

AZ also went out of the Europa League at the last 32 stage, losing to Austria’s LASK, but they have rarely let-up in the Eredivisie. They have the best defensive record – just 17 goals conceded in 25 games – and only Ajax have scored more goals than Arne Slot’s team. Slot felt AZ were unlucky to get eliminated by the team from Linz: “I don’t feel like we have been beaten by the best team we have played this season. In my opinion, Antwerp (who AZ met in the group stage) were a better team.”

AZ have been fielding up to half a dozen players under 25 years of age and some of the youngsters have been catching the eye of Europe’s big clubs. Just as Ajax’s youth became very fashionable in 2018-19, AZ have been attracting scouts from England, Spain and Germany to their home games this season. Slot believes that five of his exciting squad could make the Netherlands’ squad for the European Championship.

While midfielder Calvin Stengs and striker Myron Boadu are now Dutch internationals, goalkeeper Marco Bizot is on the brink of a cap. Slot also thinks Teun Koopmeiners and Owen Wijndal could also step up.

Boadu has been a sensation this season and has netted 14 goals in the league in 23 appearances. He scored on his international debut against Estonia in November 2019. A strong and quick striker, Boadu was turned down by Ajax earlier in this career. He looks certain to leave Alkmaar in the summer and is likely to earn the club between €20 and € 30 million. Newcastle United have been keeping a close eye on the Amsterdam-born, 19 year-old.

Winger Oussama Idrissi, a Morocco international, is also coveted by other clubs. He joined AZ from Groningen in 2018. He has interested West Ham United, Leicester City and Everton, so he could also be heading to the Premier League in the summer. He has become an exciting player after being a typically mercurial wing-man in the past.

Stengs is one of the Eredivisie’s most productive players this season and he’s also been called-up by the Dutch national team. Barcelona have been eyeing the 21 year-old and he’s naturally been watched by Ajax, even though it is unlikely that AZ will sell him to the reigning Dutch champions.

Given that AZ may lose their top talent, it may be a case of now or never for this group of players in the red shirts of “the cheeseheads”. The club has only won the Eredivisie twice, 1981 (double plus UEFA Cup finalists) and 2009. Their last major honour was the KNVB Cup in 2013.

They have a good chance, for Ajax seem to be out-of-sorts after a European exit, defeat in the KNVB Cup semi-finals and the 0-2 home loss at the hands of their nearest rivals for the title. It should be an interesting finale in the Netherlands.

@GameofthePeople

Photo: PA

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