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UEFA Europa League: Who are AZ Alkmaar, Manchester United’s Dutch group stage opposition

The draw for the group stages of the 2019/20 UEFA Europa League has been made and Manchester United find themselves in Group L alongside FC Astana of Kazakhstan, FK Partizan of Serbia and AZ Alkmaar of the Netherlands. United, who were seeded in Pot 1 and should be considered favourites to top the group, will play the competition’s group stage for the second time in the last five seasons and will no doubt be aiming to repeat their triumph in the 2016/17 season.

Alkmaar Zaanstreek, known simply as AZ, were founded on the 10 May 1967 as the result of a merger between nearby clubs Alkmaar ’54 and FC Zaanstreek. The club plays home games at the AFAS Stadion, which is located in southern Alkmaar and has a capacity of around 17,000. This stadium, which is owned directly by the club, has been their home since the summer of 2006.

The club competes in the top tier of Dutch football, the Eredivisie, which it has won twice in its relatively brief history. They have also finished as runners-up on two occasions, while also achieving similar successes in the lower divisions during the 1950s and 60s. They have however, spent most of the last 50 years in the Eredivisie. The club has also won the Dutch National Cup, the KNVB Cup, four times, while also finishing as losing finalists on three occasions, most recently in the 2017/18 season.

Their most recent Eredivisie title win in 2008/09 also enabled them to claim their only Johan Cruyff Shield at the beginning of the following season. Continentally, the club has regularly competed in UEFA’s second-tier competitions, the European Cup Winners’ Cup, UEFA Cup and the UEFA Europa League. They have a decent record in the Europa League and its predecessor competition, finishing runners-up during the 1980/81 season, where they also claimed a domestic league and cup double.

They have since made the semi-finals just once, however, and their campaigns have ended at the quarter-final stage a further three times. The club participated in the UEFA Champions League group stages in the 2009/10 season as a result of winning the 2008/09 Eredivisie. They eventually finished bottom of a group which contained United’s domestic rivals Arsenal.

They qualified for this seasons Europa League, having defeated Swedish side BK Häcken 3-0 on aggregate in the second qualifying round, which they were eligible to enter courtesy of a fourth-place finish in the 2018/19 Eredivisie. This was followed by a 4-0 aggregate win over Ukrainian side FC Mariupol in the third qualifying round. They then defeated United’s former Belgian feeder club, Royal Antwerp, 5-2 on aggregate in the playoff round to earn their place in the group stage.

Who is the manager of AZ Alkmaar?

AZ are currently managed by Dutchman Arne Slot, a former midfielder who represented a number of clubs in his homeland. He is very much in the infancy of his career as a manager and will no doubt be looking to claim a few scalps to enhance his reputation. As a player, he made his professional debut as a teenager in 1995 at FC Zwolle, for whom he scored 50 goals over the course of seven seasons. He later joined NAC Breda, where he spent the next five seasons.

He left to join Sparta Rotterdam, where he played for two seasons, before being loaned back to his old club, FC Zwolle. He then joined their local rivals PEC Zwolle, scoring 16 goals in three seasons with them, before retiring in 2013. He stayed on at the club and begun his coaching career with their youth teams. A year later, he was appointed assistant manager at a club in the lower divisions of Dutch football, SC Cambuur. He worked there for three years before becoming assistant manager of AZ, eventually becoming the club’s manager on the 1 July 2019.

Under his tutelage, they have begun this season unbeaten in domestic and European competitions. They kicked off the season at home with a goalless draw against Häcken, whom they then beat 3-0 in Sweden. Their domestic campaign got underway with a resounding 4-0 win over Fortuna Sittard. This preceded another goalless draw, this time away at Mariupol. They continued their domestic campaign with a 2-0 win at RKC Waalwijk. The return fixture against the Ukrainians ended in a 4-0 win, which booked their place in the playoff round of the Europa League.

Their next two games were also at home, where a goalless draw in the Eredivisie against FC Groningen was followed by a 1-1 draw against Royal Antwerp, who hung on for the draw after having a man sent off. They put this frustrating result behind them just a few days ago, beating the Belgian side 4-1 on their own patch, thus qualifying for the Europa League group stages. This match went to extra time, after AZ equalised in the last minute of regulation time, against an Antwerp side who, by that point, had been reduced to nine men.

Who plays for AZ Alkmaar?

AZ boast players who may not be as unfamiliar to United as one might think. These include Dutch internationals in the form of club captain Ron Vlaar, a former Aston Villa defender, as well as midfielder Jordy Clasie, formerly of Southampton. One of their key players is a compatriot of United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Norwegian international midfielder Fredrik Midtsjø. 

AZ typically line up in a 4-3-3 formation, a favourite of Dutch teams in years gone by. This is hardly surprising since the club has a Dutch manager and a predominantly Dutch squad. Even the players who aren’t Dutch were either born in or have spent their formative years in the Netherlands, so United can expect a stern test against a team that is comfortable in possession. Similar to United, AZ also have a number of academy graduates in their first-team squad for the 2019/20 season.

As one would expect from Dutch teams, their forwards are their most potent threat. Their first-choice forwards include Dutch-born Moroccan international Oussama Idrissi, who has scored four goals so far this season, predominantly from the left-wing. On the opposite flank is 20-year-old Dutch winger Calvin Stengs, who is of Surinamese descent. He has scored three goals and provided two assists already this season. Their most exciting player is up front, in the form of 18-year-old Dutch striker Myron Boadu, who is of Ghanaian descent.

He has three goals and three assists to his name in 2019/20. Further back, their trio in midfield, which includes a holding player, enables their forward players and full-backs to get at their opposition. Over the years, Dutch teams have produced some potent forwards, who have been coveted by bigger European clubs for their ability in front of goal. AZ appear to have this across their frontline, so United’s defence will have their work cut out when they face them. 

The Eredivisie still in its early stages, and the club will be hoping to keep pace with rivals PSV Eindhoven, Feyenoord Rotterdam, as well as reigning champions AFC Ajax, who were a surprise package in last season’s Champions League. Having their first full season under a new manager themselves, it is likely that AZ have similar expectations for the season as United. A run in domestic and European cup competitions would be welcomed, provided that their league form didn’t suffer as a result.

Does United have a history with AZ Alkmaar?

United will be facing AZ for the first time in the club’s history. They will be the fifth different Dutch opponent United will have faced in European competition, following Ajax, PSV, Feyenoord and Willem II. United were defeated on their last two visits to the Netherlands, which were coincidentally the opening fixtures of their European campaigns in those respective seasons. They lost 2-1 to PSV in the 2015/16 Champions League group stage, and 1-0 to Feyenoord during the group stage of their victorious 2016/17 Europa League campaign.

AZ’s most recent league title win was masterminded by former United manager Louis van Gaal. The Dutchman left the club after this triumph to manage German giants Bayern Munich, whom he led to a domestic league and cup double. He also led them to the 2010 Champions League final, where he was defeated by Inter Milan, who were managed by his eventual replacement as United manager, José Mourinho. AZ has also been managed by former Southampton and Everton manager Ronald Koeman, as well as former Sunderland manager Dick Advocaat.

In addition to these two, they have also been managed by legendary Dutch striker Marco van Basten, who played against the Red Devils for Ajax during pre-season in 1986, just a few months before Sir Alex Ferguson first took the reins at Old Trafford. United’s current number two goalkeeper Sergio Romero was a key member of AZ’s last Eredivisie-winning side and his relationship with van Gaal is perhaps what persuaded him to sign for the Red Devils in 2015.

Romero of course, was the club’s first-choice goalkeeper in the 2016/17 Europa League, keeping a clean sheet in the final against Ajax as United emerged victorious. United have previously been acquainted with a few of AZ’s notable youth team graduates. These include former Sunderland winger Jeremain Lens, who scored a fantastic free-kick against United while on loan at Fenerbahçe during the group stages of the 2016/17 Europa League.

This group of players also includes former PSV winger Luciano Narsingh, who scored in United’s 2-1 defeat to the Dutch side in the 2015/16 Champions League, as well as current Burnley winger Jóhann Berg Guđmundsson. Among players to have previously played for AZ is Belgian international and former Fulham and Tottenham Hotspur midfielder Mousa Dembélé, who was another key player under van Gaal at the Dutch club.

When are the matches against AZ Alkmaar going to be played?

United will visit the AFAS Stadion to play AZ for the very first time on Europa League match-day 2 on the 3 October, with kick-off set for 17:55 BST. The away trip to Alkmaar will be the shortest that United and their supporters will have to make in the group stages of this seasons competition, with the two cities being separated by less than 500 kilometres. The return fixture at Old Trafford will bring the group stage to a conclusion and will take place on December 12th, with kick-off at 21:00 BST.

As usual, these group matches will be sandwiched between Premier League fixtures. The first meeting takes place a few days after United face rivals Arsenal at Old Trafford. It will be followed by another trip, this time to face Newcastle United. The return fixture comes after a Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium and will precede another home game for United, against Everton. All in all, United will be looking to get maximum points from both encounters against a relatively inexperienced side.

That being said, AZ still looks like a dangerous opponent who should not be underestimated, particularly as they’ve won games by large margins, even away from home. The trips to and from the away game are probably going to be the most comfortable for the players, as it is a much shorter journey than those to Kazakhstan and Serbia. These games are all still likely be tough tests for United’s players, many of whom are inexperienced in European competition.

Written by Shiven Nayager

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