Only once since 1965 have either AFC Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven not been Dutch champions. AZ Alkmaar broke that triopoly in 1980/81 and, with the season resuming this weekend, they are well placed to do so again.
At the midway point in the campaign, AZ hold a three-point lead over Ajax, and reigning champions PSV are eighth further back in their bid for a fifth straight title. AZ won their last six league games before the break without conceding a goal, Ajax and Feyenoord among their victims, and are unbeaten in their last 15 league games since losing their opening two fixtures of the campaign, kicking off that run with a 1-0 defeat of PSV on 20 September.
Not won yet
An eleventh-placed finish last season was a throwback to AZ's early-1990s doldrums following years of positive progress, but with coach Louis van Gaal having been persuaded to stay on at the club by his players, AZ are a different side in 2008/09, beating all-comers with superb displays of skilful football. That said, Van Gaal remains cautious, mindful of his second season at the club in 2006/07, when AZ were pipped to the title on the final day. "The term winter champions doesn't mean anything to me, that is just something invented by the media," the former Ajax, FC Barcelona and Netherlands boss said. "The title will only be decided later on."
However, there is a sense of satisfaction ahead of Sunday's visit to bottom side FC Volendam. "
The first half of the season went extremely well," Van Gaal said. "In the summer I said the biggest reinforcements were the return from injury of Stijn Schaars, Maarten Martens, Joey Didulica and Gijs Luirink. The first two have shown that on the pitch, while the latter prove that in the dressing room each day."
Mounir El Hamdaoui is AZ's top scorer with 15 goals, while at the back AZ have conceded only eleven in 17 matches, having kept 12 clean sheets – a record unmatched in Europe's top leagues this season. Captain Schaars said: "Last season we were so eager to go forward as a team. In every match anyone almost blindly went forward. Now we are more balanced."
Marco van Basten's Ajax look the main threat to AZ's hopes, as the capital club aim for their first championship in five years, their longest wait in two decades. The departure of Klaas Jan Huntelaar to Real Madrid CF meant some adjustment, but his replacement Darío Cvitanich is hitting form with six goals in his last three Eredivisie appearances before the break. Meanwhile, the defensive gap left when John Heitinga joined Club Atlético de Madrid is now to be filled by Rob Wielaert, signed this month from third-placed FC Twente.
Bullish Van Basten
Van Basten is still bullish about Ajax's chances as they prepare for a difficult trip to NEC Nijmegen. "I don't agree that AZ are playing the nicest football," he said. "We also had some excellent matches, only at AZ they are eager to talk about it as well. Ajax are one of the favourites for the title.
We just have to wait for AZ to make mistakes."
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