Fresh from Thursday's hugely disappointing 3-0 Europa League defeat to Red Bull Salzburg, Frank de Boer's Ajax head into Sunday's Eredivisie clash knowing that a far greater performance is required if they are to retain their four-point cushion at the top.
Against the Austrians, Ajax were borderline abysmal and did not resemble a team who are searching for a fourth consecutive Eredivisie crown. Manager de Boer will already be dreading next week's redundant return fixture and would not be blamed for taking a reserve squad to Salzburg on Thursday. For now, the Dutch legend's attentions must be fully focused on Sunday's challenge from an AZ side who will be full of confidence heading into this key fixture.
As well as winning the reverse contest last August, Dick Advocaat's men also claimed victory at the Amsterdam Arena on their last visit via a 3-0 scoreline in the KNVB Cup. Combined with the 2-2 draw in last season's league encounter, Alkmaar can head to the capital full of high spirit.
Unlike their Amsterdam opponents, AZ did record a positive result during midweek as they left Slovan Liberic with a 1-0 advantage ahead of next week's return match at the AFAS Stadion. It looks increasingly likely that the Cheese Farmers will be the last Dutch team in Europe this season—a fantastic achievement for a club who only qualified for it courtesy of a 2013 cup triumph.
The 2009 champions currently sit seventh in the Eredivisie table and look certain to improve on last year's 10th-placed finish. If they can overcome Ajax, then it's possible that they could yet scrape into Europa League qualification.
Failing that, they could always achieve that by retaining the KNVB Cup. AZ meet Ajax in next month's semi-final so this league meeting also serves as a dress rehearsal for that crucial encounter.
Will Ajax Retain Their Title?
For Ajax, though, this league match is far more important than a prelude to that semi-final. As well as wanting to recover some of the damage caused by Thursday's humiliation, de Boer knows that this game offers the perfect opportunity to tighten their grip on the Eredivisie trophy. With FC Twente and Feyenoord facing each other later on Sunday afternoon, at least one of the champions rivals will drop points and picking up three points against AZ would ensure that the Amsterdam giants remain firmly in the driving seat.
If this is to be de Boer's final season then marking it with a fourth consecutive title, which would be the first time Ajax has ever achieved the feat, would be the perfect parting gift from one of the club's biggest icons.
Three points against AZ would certainly go a long way to cementing their place in history.