AZ Alkmaar preserved their unbeaten home record in European competition but it was Werder Bremen who will consider themselves slight favourites to reach the UEFA Cup semi-finals after this first-leg draw. It was ironic that, on a night full of goals, the game that had promised the most should end in stalemate.
AZ had started patiently, knocking the ball around assuredly and probing for an opening. But after ten minutes the first clear-cut chance fell to the visitors, and what an opportunity. Diego's ingenious back-heel carved open the home defence and Clemens Fritz advanced unchallenged on goal. Fortunately for AZ, goalkeeper Boy Waterman got his fingers to the shot and diverted it centimetres wide of his right-hand post.
Little AZ threat
Five minutes later it was the Bundesliga team's turn again, although Miroslav Klose's header from a delightful Pierre Wome cross was easily dealt with by Waterman. Last year's Eredivisie runners-up seemed unnerved by the regularity with which Bremen regained possession in midfield, seldom threatening. In fact, the nearest AZ came in the opening half-hour was when Bremen centre-back Naldo wildly sliced a clearance towards his own goal, though keeper Tim Wiese was not unduly troubled.
Martens comes close
Yet on 31 minutes Louis van Gaal's side nearly broke the deadlock. Julian Jenner whipped in a fine centre and Maarten Martens' header was tipped over at full stretch by the Bremen custodian. This energised AZ, who now pinned Bremen deeper in their own half. Wiese was again called into action to cut out a dangerous Martens delivery. Shota Arveladze then outjumped Wome yet his header missed the target. Bremen gradually came back though, and the half drew to a close with neither team on top.
The second period immediately sparked into life, with corners for both clubs within five minutes. Moussa Dembélé really should have opened the scoring soon after but his low drive was straight at Wiese. A minute later the keeper touched Danny Koevermans' strike to safety. Waterman promptly had to do likewise to deny Diego at the other end.
AZ continued to up the tempo although the Bremen defence was being well marshalled by Per Mertesacker. However, just after the hour, an ill-judged pass-back by Wome almost let Koevermans in. Wiese raced from his box and slid the ball away from the in-rushing attacker. Wome again contrived to help his opponents, nodding the ball beyond his keeper before making amends with a last-ditch goalline clearance. Fortunately for his side, he also menaced Alkmaar, hammering in a free-kick so hard that Waterman required treatment after saving it.
The referee then played a notable part in proceedings, showing AZ's Grétar Steinsson a second yellow card and then a red before, after consulting with his assistant, rescinding the sending-off and allowing the right-back to stay on the pitch. The game subsequently drew to a close with AZ in the ascendancy yet unable to make their superiority count. The decision in this tie will come in Germany next Thursday.