AZ Alkmaar suffered their heaviest European defeat at the hands of FC Anji Makhachkala last season, but with Dick Advocaat now at the tiller – and the Russian side much changed – AZ are eager to make amends.
Under Gertjan Verbeek, AZ went down 1-0 at Anji in their 2012/13 UEFA Europa League play-off opener then succumbed to a 5-0 mauling in the return fixture at AZ Stadion, where they welcome Anji for the first instalment of their round of 16 tie on Thursday. The visitors have lost coach Guus Hiddink and most of their squad since the last encounter, with only Kamil Agalarov, Rasim Tagirbekov and Fedor Smolov remaining from 18 months ago, yet hope springs eternal.
"We are delighted we are through to the round of 16 and I hope we will still be in contention in the next round too," said Anji defender Tagirbekov. "AZ Alkmaar will be a big game, a tough game. We played them in the Europa League a year ago and we won 5-0 in the Netherlands, but then we had a team full of stars. I hope we can win this time as well."
AZ have not undergone so dramatic a transformation as their opponents, though they have seen the likes of Jozy Altidore, Maarten Martens and Adam Maher leave, and now have Advocaat in charge. The Dutchman will surely provide the inside track on Anji, having had spells with the Russian national team and FC Zenit, where he lifted the UEFA Cup in 2008.
"The coach is hugely important for us," AZ forward Aron Jóhannsson, who has scored 16 Eredivisie goals this term, told UEFA.com. "With his experience, we can go a long way. He has won this trophy before so his advice at this stage of the competition is priceless."
Defender Nick Viergever, who featured in last season's play-off, also flagged up Advocaat's influence. "He's such a nice guy with a wealth of experience," he said. "He has achieved so much in his career, from being Russia coach to winning lots of domestic trophies. He transmits that experience to our young group of players. He is still very motivated and eager to do well."
Gadzhi Gadzhiev's Anji are bottom of the Russian Premier-Liga with just one victory all campaign, yet the sage Advocaat is not expecting a walkover. "They are not the same team as they were under Guus," acknowledged the 66-year-old. "Anji have changed a lot. How good they are is hard to say, but when you win 2-0 in Genk [as Anji did in the last 32], then you prove you are still capable of doing something."
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