Challenging for the title is the exclusive prerogative of a privileged few in most of Europe's leagues. But no one has told AZ Alkmaar, writes Derek Brookman

Out of the 32 million or so eyebrows in the Netherlands, the number raised when AZ Alkmaar vis­ited PSV Eindhoven two games into the Dutch season and lost 5-1 probably didn’t exceed single figures. After all, this was the natural order: big eating small, famous club and previous European Cup winner putting team from cheese-market town with an 8,390 capacity stadium in their place.

But, as we all know, the footballing universe fre­quently has a wobble in its continuum. AZ have not lost since in the Eredivisie, racking up ten wins on the trot at one point and taking over pole position before the winter break. Few will disagree that the team is playing the most attractive and attacking football in the country, and 42 points from a possible 51 is good going by anyone’s standards. In between domestic duties, AZ even found time to win their UEFA Cup group.

What is the secret to AZ’s success? A healthy stack of cash from chairman Dick Scheringa has helped buy decent (although by no means world-beating) players and reward existing ones. But the main factor has to be the coach, Co Adriaanse, formerly of Ajax and Willem II Tilburg. Adriaanse said recently that he felt the success was largely down to discipline and continuity – here’s a man that doesn’t believe in squad rotation. But he seems just to be good at his job. Tellingly, he added that Rangers, whom AZ helped eliminate from Europe, had five times as much as his club to spend on players. “But we still have a better team,” he said.

As for the domestic competition, Ajax have had a fairly unconvincing campaign so far, struggling up front after losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Juventus. Over in Rotterdam, the initial hoo-hah surrounding the arrival of Ruud Gullit has faded; after a bright start, Feyenoord are now well off the pace. PSV looked the best of the bunch, setting a new Dutch record by not conceding a goal for 1,159 consecutive minutes. But within touching distance of the winter break the defence suddenly let in five, the team dropped five points, and Co and the boys sneaked up to become joint “winter champions”.

The big question is, of course, can AZ actually go on to win the league? The biggest fly in the ointment is probably the man who has been the catalyst for the success. Adriaanse announced early in January that he would not be renewing his contract at the end of this season. “I am a victim of my own success,” he said. “I work extremely intensively with a group of players and evidently the magic only lasts for three years.” He may have a point. He spent three seasons at Willem II, enough to engineer second place in the competition and a Champions League berth for this low-profile provincial club. Yet he resigned during the fourth year at his first club, PEC Zwolle, and was shown the door after a similar period at FC Den Haag.

Jan Mulder, a former Netherlands international, certainly thinks Adriaanse is not doing his team any favours by announcing his departure now. “When a team learns halfway through the season that the trainer is leaving, the trainer’s authority is no longer intact. Discipline, effort and the collective spirit all suffer as a result.” Unsurprisingly, Adriaanse disagrees. “The way I work doesn’t leave room for things to go wrong. In any case, the players smell success.”

Normal service could resume soon. Ajax have sign­ed Angelos Charisteas, the Greece striker who scored the winner at Euro 2004, from Werder Bremen. Ruud Gullit may learn how to energise his players rather than despair of them in public. And PSV will surely plug the temporary leaks that appeared in their defence. Yet AZ cannot be dismissed lightly. They have already started work on a new, larger stadium, there is talk of a private TV channel and they have managed to secure Louis van Gaal as successor to Adriaanse. It is not in­conceivable that the biggest challenge facing Van Gaal will be to top his predecessor’s remarkable feat of taking the title outside Eindhoven, Amsterdam or Rotterdam for the first time in 24 years. And who were champions then? Alkmaar.

From WSC 217 March 2005. What was happening this month

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