Whoever is drawn against AZ Alkmaar in the UEFA Cup quarter-finals might be advised to start putting in some extra fitness work now, for they will need to be at their sharpest for fully 180 minutes to get the better of the high-flying Dutch team.
'Our best match'
Louis van Gaal's men showed once again last night that they simply do not know when they are beaten. Trailing Newcastle United FC 4-2 going into the second leg at the DSB-Stadium, they tore into their visitors from start to finish, securing a 2-0 win that sent them through on the away-goals rule. Speaking after strikes from Shota Arveladze and Danny Koevermans had extended AZ's unbeaten home record in Europe to 29 games, a delighted Van Gaal described it as "the best match we could have played".
The man who led AFC Ajax to UEFA Champions League and UEFA Cup triumphs in the 1990s has fashioned an exciting side whose relentless attacking against Newcastle underlined just why they are the tournament's 25-goal top scorers. "We scored two goals but we had three or four one-on-ones against the goalkeeper so we could have decided the game much earlier," said Van Gaal.
While their stylish forward play, spearheaded by experienced Ajax old boy Arveladze, is easy on the eye, their never-say-die spirit is arguably their greatest strength. They were 4-1 down to Newcastle at one stage in the tie and Van Gaal considered their comeback even greater than last season's first-round victory over FC Krylya Sovetov Samara. Then they lost the first leg in Russia 5-3, conceded another goal 15 minutes into the return, yet recovered to win 3-1 – and advance on away goals. "We did it also against Krylya Sovetov but Newcastle are a top team," said Van Gaal. "This match is the best match. It is tough mentally when you are trailing 4-2 but we have proved we can do it."
Fightbacks have become AZ's trademark as their efforts in the group stage testify. They were a goal behind at half-time at Grasshopper-Club but revived to win 5-2. They twice trailed FC Slovan Liberec before Julian Jenner salvaged a home point on 89 minutes. Then they retrieved another half-time deficit to triumph 2-1 at Sevilla FC – and secure first place in the section - with a 93rd-minute Arveladze goal.
And there is more. Playing Fenerbahçe SK in the Round of 32, they were staring defeat in the face when after a 3-3 away draw, they went 2-0 down at home. Yet Maarten Martens and Barry Opdam – the latter striking four minutes from time – contrived a comeback that carried them through on the away-goals rule. "I have to give my players a compliment for this massive performance," enthused Van Gaal last night. However, their performances have spoken louder than any words: you write AZ off at your peril.
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