From the three Belgian sides in the knockout phase, Anderlecht impressed the most – maximum points in the group stage and a stage for Matias Suarez to show Europe what he can do. But arguably, Anderlecht have a tricky task to overcome Eredivisie’s joint leaders AZ Alkmaar. Not to mention there could be a Belgian out to haunt them. Felipe Dos Santos, tell us more…
There are some similarities between AZ and Anderlecht, the rivals in the UEFA Europa League second round duel. Both teams got have good depth in their squad – probably not Europa League winners, but squads neither should be ashamed of. Both have good players, with the chance to be sooner or later leaving a big stage.
And here we finish the coincidences. Because, despite being one of the main contenders for Eredivisie trophy, the Alkmaarders are not safe leaders like Anderlecht – let’s face the truth: if they are not already waiting for the trophy, Les Mauves are just maintaining the huge gap between them and Gent (and also Club Brugge), waiting for the Play-off I to start. AZ is Eredivisie leader currently, but equal in points with PSV Eindhoven and FC Twente is definitely not a side to forget in this battle.Besides this, the Dutch team is not as solid as the one which Louis van Gaal won Eredivisie in 2008/09, ending a 28-year drought. Those were times in which the club was boosted by a rich owner. Not an oil-rich owner as some we know, but a Dutch businessman: Dirk Scheringa.
Once a police officer, Scheringa founded DSB Bank in 1975, and became the president of the club from his neighbourhood in 1993. Five years after, the club returned to Eredivisie. In 2004/05, already with Van Gaal at the helm, AZ were 3rd in Eredivisie and reached the UEFA Cup semifinals. And, finally, in 2009, they won the national trophy. A dream coming true.But the dream turned out to be a nightmare: still in the same year, DSB Bank was one of many banks which were swamped by the world economic crisis. Soon Scheringa was forced to leave AZ. And all the players who made that dream come true also said goodbye at a certain time. El Hamdaoui, Schaars, Demy de Zeeuw, Sergio Romero: all of them are just good memories nowadays. Oh, and we can’t forget the Belgian duo of Sebastien Pocognoli and Moussa Dembélé…
Well, in truth, those rosy days are not really gone because AZ is still one of the good clubs from the Netherlands. After some problems with Ronald Koeman (and a short stint with Dick Advocaat as a caretaker), the team finally found a new coach in Gertjan Verbeek, who has been the master since 2010. It looks as he is “the right man in the right place”: Verbeek is probably the best Dutch coach when getting the best out of with a medium-level squad. He did very good jobs with Heerenveen and Heracles Almelo (his last step before AZ). But he had a lot of troubles when working on Feyenoord: the Rotterdam club had some stars, as Roy Makaay, Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Denny Landzaat who kicked up a fuss about the hard training systems of Verbeek, with lots of physical work. Verbeek was the casualty.
Under Verbeek, AZ have endured two good seasons. The Alkmaar club found place its in the Europa League and is still a riding high at the top of the Dutch league table, but there was definitely a lack of something. Under the sticks, the young Costa Rican Esteban Alvarado is the keeper with more clean sheets in Eredivisie season (18 goals in 21 rounds). The defense got a very solid defender in Niklas Moisander, the Finnish captain. In midfield, Pontus Wernbloom is an important absence (went to CSKA Moscow during the winter transfer window), but there’s still Rasmus Elm and, mainly, Adam Maher, the wonderboy in the league. And there is plenty of options in the attack: Roy Beerens, basically a goalscorer; Charlison Benschop, who scored three goals in the 6-0 victory against ADO Den Haag, two rounds ago in the Eredivisie; and Jozy Altidore, the American who still tries to make his name.
Last but not least, it may seem that we forgot a name, but we didn’t! Maarten Martens was injured in late 2011, but recovered and returned in full throttle: he was the best player in the 3-2 replay against Ajax in Dutch Cup, after Esteban was attacked by a supporter in December. Martens came back to his main role, as a playmaker, helping Maher, who is still learning his trade in his teenager years. Maybe Martens is trying to say Georges Leekens he deserves a chance in the national team. After all, he is remembered just as one of the members in the squads which made the 2007 UEFA U-21 Championship and the 2008 Olympics. His last match for the Red Devils was in 2009 and he’s been a forgotten figure ever since.So, Martens is like a symbol of AZ from nowadays. A team which is still recovering and is a kind of underdog. But a team that can really trouble Anderlecht, though Les Mauves are favourites.