On Thursday night, AZ will welcome Russian side Anzhi Makhachkala to the AFAS Stadion with genuine hopes of reaching the Europa League quarter-finals.
The reigning KNVB Cup winners are the last remaining Dutch side in Europe this season and Dick Advocaat is aiming to mastermind a route to the last eight of this competition by seeing off the challenge of Anzhi.
Russian club Anzhi are no longer the spending powerhouse of a few years back and have subsequently allowed stars like Samuel Eto'o and Lacina Traore to depart. Problems off the field have transpired onto the pitch too and the Russians are currently languishing at the bottom of their domestic league with just 11 points from 20 matches.
Can AZ get revenge for last year's 5-0 defeat?
That poor league form does not mean that the Russians should be taken lightly. Their impressive 2-0 victory over Genk in the previous round illustrates that on their day they can still perform to a very high standard and AZ will need to be cautious heading into this tie.
The return leg in Russia next week will be an extremely difficult challenge and Advocaat must ensure that his side install an advantage in this home clash.
AZ warmed up for this important tie with back-to-back 4-0 triumphs in Eredivisie—against RKC and Heracles respectively—and will be confident of more goals on Thursday. Last season, Anzhi thumped AZ 5-0 and this contest provides the Dutch club with the perfect opportunity for redemption against the now much weaker Russian opponent.
Whilst Advocaat will be looking to top-scorer Aron Johannsson for goals, defender Nick Viergever may also provide additional ammunition in AZ's pursuit of a first-leg advantage. The 24-year-old has scored three in his last five appearances, including in both matches of the previous round against Slovan Liberec.
If AZ can navigate their way to the quarter-final, it wouldn't only be a fantastic achievement in itself but it would additionally provide a huge momentum boost ahead of their KNVB Cup semi-final later this month. The Dutch Cup holders face Eredivisie champions Ajax—who crashed out of the Europa League against Red Bull Salzburg in the last round—on March 27.
Alkmaar are firm favourites to qualify for the quarter-final but must avoid complacency, particularly in this home leg—with Advocaat in charge, that should not be a problem.
Can AZ book their place in the quarter-finals? Post your thoughts below.