DAVID SMITH - Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Jozy Altidore and AZ Alkmaar will play their final game before the month-long winter break on Wednesday evening when they travel to Amsterdam to face Ajax in the Dutch Cup.
Despite struggling slightly in the last few weeks, AZ have nevertheless put together an impressive first half of the season.
Heading into the holiday break, they are sitting atop the Eredivisie standings, and were also able to pass through their group in the Europa League to set up a knockout round draw against Belgian neighbors Anderlecht.
They still have one more test to pass before they can relax for the holidays when they face 18-time Dutch Cup winners Ajax, and it is likely to be one of their toughest of the current season.
A number of significant meetings between these teams have taken place in the Cup. One of the more recent triumphs of Ajax came in the 2007 final, when they overcame AZ in an 8-7 penalty shootout that helped a flush a previously promising season down the drain.
More recently, Ajax were responsible for knocking AZ out at this exact stage last year, winning a narrow 1-0 contest at home on their way to reaching the final, where they lost to Twente.
Alkmaar are not without their own successes, with two of their three victories in the final coming over Ajax, although with the last taking place 30 years ago.
Last season's league champions Ajax are having an unspectacular season both domestically and on the European stage this go-around. They are sitting fourth in the standings, five behind AZ, and could only finish third in their Champions League group, setting up a Europa League clash with English Giants Manchester United in the new year.
The two teams played once Eredivisie action in mid-October, a 2-2 draw which saw AZ blow a two-goal lead, giving up a late equalizer to their opponents despite having a man-advantage on the field.
Ajax will be missing 19 year-old Danish star Christian Eriksen, who is troubled with an ankle problem. However, veteran defender André Ooijer should return from a hamstring injury.
The only absence for AZ will be Maarten Martens, who has successfully suited up for the reserves after a long lay-off for an ankle injury, although the team will wait until the new year to test him in first-team action.
Otherwise, forward Roy Beerens is expected to make a return to the field after missing AZ's weekend game with the flu.