AZ upsetting Dutch hierarchy
Though a mere 50km separates Amsterdam and Alkmaar geographically, the bustling metropolis and the idyllic resort on the North Sea are worlds apart in footballing terms. This year, however, Ajax fans are not being treated to their customary success. Instead, AZ Alkmaar are well clear at the top of the Eredivisie, with an eight-point lead over the record Dutch champions and a game in hand.
Only once since 1965 has a team other than Feyenoord, PSV Eindhoven and Ajax won the Dutch top flight, and that was also AZ, who broke the hegemony in 1981 and are looking to repeat the feat this year. While Marco van Basten's side were slipping to a 1-0 home defeat by Heerenveen last weekend, Louis van Gaal's charges were busy cruising past Sparta Rotterdam 2-0. Ajax then compounded their misery by only drawing 2-2 at home to Heracles Almelo on Tuesday.
"We kept another clean sheet and scored two great goals. We're determined to keep our winning run going while our rivals are all dropping points," said Van Gaal, in reference to his team's attempts to move 11 points clear with a win against Roda Kerkrade on Wednesday evening.
If they do secure all three points, then that would be an incredible tenth league win in a row for AZ, and their 19th match unbeaten. Indeed their only reverses came in the first two matches of the season - a slow start which the team have very much put behind them since then. Another impressive record is the fact that they have now gone nine matches without conceding a goal.
There is an unusual motivating force behind AZ's domination of the Dutch league this term: quite simply, the players are afraid of losing their coach. After they finished a disappointing 11th last season, Van Gaal had to be talked round by his troops to stay at the club.
Whatever they said must have been very persuasive, and the players have made sure that the 57-year-old has not had cause to regret his decision. True to his nature, though, Van Gaal is still urging caution. "Being top of the league half way through the season doesn't mean a thing. The title will be decided a lot later in the season," he said, with the 2007 campaign, when AZ lost the title on the last day, still painfully fresh in the memory.
"The first half of the season went really well. I said back in summer that our real advantage would come from the injured players that we would be getting back, Stijn Schaars, Maarten Martens, Joey Didulica and Gijs Luirink. The first two have proved me right out on the pitch while the other two show their worth every day in training," explained Van Gaal.
Captain Schaars added: "Last season we thought that playing attacking football would be the answer to all our problems and we spent our time piling forward. Now we're a lot more balanced." And with striker Mounir El Hamdoui top of the scoring charts on 16 goals, and the defence having only let in 11 - by far the best record in any of Europe's top leagues - he can have few doubters.
One of those, however, is Van Basten. "I don't agree that Alkmaar play the most attractive football," he said. "We've also put in some great performances but people like to talk about Alkmaar. Ajax are one of the favourites for the title and we just need to wait for Alkmaar to slip up."
At least Ajax can comfort themselves with the fact that their perennial rivals are even further adrift of AZ. PSV, who won the title the last four years, are fifth and are currently dealing with the resignation of coach Huub Stevens, while Feyenoord are languishing in 13th, a mere two points above the relegation zone.
It may be too soon to speak of a new hierarchy in Dutch football, but for this season at least, there is a new powerhouse on the domestic scene.