Alkmaar Zaanstreek head into Thursday's Europa League tie with Slovan Liberec as the clear favourites for a place in the last 16 of this year's Champions League, but they must avoid complacency in order to progress.
Dick Advocaat's side took the advantage in this tie courtesy of a late winner from defender Nick Viergever in the Czech Republic last week. The Eredivisie side simply need to avoid defeat at home to book their place in the next round, where they will play the winner of Anzhi Makhachkala and Genk—who are 0-0 after the first leg in Russia.
Last season's KNVB Cup winners did well to top Group L—which was comprised of PAOK Salonika, Maccabi Haifa and Shakhter Karagandy—and should they overcome the challenge of Liberec, then it is almost certain that they will have gone the furthest out of any Dutch club in Europe this season.
With Ajax trailing to Red Bull Salzburg 3-0 after a woeful display in Amsterdam last week, the Eredivisie champions need a miracle if they want to join AZ in the last 16.
Whilst AZ are the clear favourites to reach the next round, Advocaat knows that the work is far from finished. They enter Thursday's clash on the back of a resounding 4-0 defeat away at Ajax and just two victories in their most recent five matches, including that win in Liberec. On a brighter note, their home form has been strong with two wins and a draw in their three matches at the AFAS Stadion so far in 2014.
Another source of optimism for AZ is Slovan Liberec's severe lack of match practice. The Czech league only resumed last weekend, so the trip to Holland is only their third competitive match of the calendar year; after drawing 2-2 with Mlada Boleslav on Sunday, they're still searching for a first win of 2014.
How Far Can AZ Go?
Even before Christmas, Liberec suffered poor domestic form. After Sunday's draw, they have now gone seven league matches without a win and so confidence will be quite low. That last-minute Viergever goal last Thursday was another bitter blow to the Czech club and could prove to be the difference.
AZ's winner not only put them in front, but it completely changed the complexion of the tie thanks to the away goals rule and subsequently puts the Eredivisie side firmly in the driving seat.
Even at 0-0 they would have been fancied to qualify, but there would have always been the danger of Liberec scoring first and then parking the proverbial bus. Viergever's goal ensures that can no longer happen, and the Dutch side really should have enough to progress.
With Anzhi or Genk awaiting them in the next round, there is no reason Advocaat's side can't reach the latter stages of this competition. Their chances of lifting the Europa League trophy on May 14 are slim but, then again, they defied the odds to win last season's KNVB Cup, so perhaps they shouldn't be written off just yet. However, Advocaat is a realist and the Alkmaar club will be more than happy with a place in the last 16.
Whatever happens, at least they'll enjoy the ride.