It is advantage AZ Alkmaar in the race to reach the UEFA Europa League quarter-finals after a 1-0 home win against FC Anji Makhachkala.
Aron Jóhannsson squeezed a first-half penalty past Anji goalkeeper Mikhail Kerzhakov to settle the match, but AZ withstood sustained pressure from a team throwing caution to the wind. Dick Advocaat's outfit relied on a first-rate performance from their No1 Esteban to preserve their unbeaten run in this season's competition and secure a slender lead to take to Russia next week.
The hosts came close to opening the scoring when a sedentary start gave way to a manic scramble on 15 minutes. AZ goalkeeper Esteban was left prone after reacting to Aleksandr Bukharov's blocked shot, and Fedor Smolov headed the rebound firmly back over the stopper. Refusing to be beaten, though, Esteban scrambled to his feet, palmed the looping header upwards as he crashed to the ground, then clawed the dropping ball away before it could cross the line.
It was a priceless save, as 16 minutes later AZ took the lead. Ali Gadzhibekov's flailing arm cost his side a penalty and while Kerzhakov got two hands to Aron Jóhannsson's spot-kick, the ball bounced agonisingly over the line.
The AZ crossbar somehow withstood a coruscating long-range free-kick by Olexandr Aliyev, and Esteban stuck out a palm to deflect Bukharov's close-range shot as the hosts stole a half-time lead against a desperately frustrated Anji.
Anji picked up where they had left off, Aliyev worrying Esteban with another screaming set-piece from distance, before substitute Nikita Burmistrov's downward header tested the keeper's positioning at the back post. Esteban passed with flying colours.
Anji's will wilted as the contest wore on and the home side gently probed their tiring opponents. Jóhannsson was foiled by Kerzhakov's low stop in the clearest opportunity, but neither side was prepared to risk a late surge and the tie remains alive.
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