AZ Alkmaar coach Gertjan Verbeek admitted that his team have fared better than anyone could have anticipated as they head into the five-week winter break one point clear at the Eredivisie summit.
Beset by financial problems after securing a second championship title under Louis van Gaal in 2009, the last two years have seen high-profile players like Moussa Dembélé, Ari, Mounir El Hamdaoui, Demy de Zeeuw, Stijn Schaars and Kolbeinn Sigthórsson sold in an effort to balance the books.
Those economic revived unpleasant memories of the club's 1988 relegation but fears were soon allayed this season; AZ won eight of their nine opening games, including an impressive 3-1 defeat of PSV Eindhoven, who lie in second. Verbeek's charges have also impressed in Europe, finishing second in UEFA Europa League Group G to set up a last 32 tie with Belgian side RSC Anderlecht.
Rasmus Elm's eight league goals and some superb displays from Simon Poulsen, Brett Holman, Jozy Altidore, Roy Beerens and 18-year-old Adam Maher have established the club as genuine title contenders, but despite his side boasting the meanest defence in the top flight – just 15 goals conceded in 17 games – Verbeek is keen to play down their championship chances.
"Winter champions? That does not mean anything," said the 49-year-old coach. "Only that we have performed above expectations in the first half of the season."
AZ have not had it all their own way, a 5-1 reverse at the hands of sc Heerenveen and a 2-1 loss against NAC Breda on 18 December condemned the league leaders to two defeats in a fortnight ahead of the winter break. However, the former Heracles Almelo and Feyenoord coach said after the latter result: "This defeat does not diminish our performance in the first half of the season."
General manager Toon Gerbrands has played a key role in turning the club's fortunes around but feels that - as good as they are - AZ are not yet the finished item. "In a year we will have no more debts," he said. "AZ will be back on track then with a solid budget, a new training centre and then the party starts; a new era."
AZ return to action on 22 January when they face an AFC Ajax side who currently sit joint third with FC Twente, five points adrift of top spot.
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