PREVIEW: AJAX - AZ ALKMAAR
Jozy Altidore and AZ return from the winter break with the first of two straight games against Ajax, with a trip to the final eight of the Dutch Cup on the line when the teams meet in Amsterdam on Thursday.
Originally scheduled in late-December, this round of 16 game was interrupted when a bizarre turn of events involving a fan attack on AZ keeper Esteban Alvarado and a surprise red card for the Costa Rican international led coach Gertjan Verbeek to pull his team from the field.
The Dutch FA opted for a complete replay from the starting whistle, however with the caveat that it should be played in front of a nearly-empty stadium to avoid any potential problems from the stands.
The decision was eventually amended to allow children to attend the game, and all are hoping that the previously inept Ajax field security will be able to prevent even the most fleet-footed youngster from perpetrating any further shenanigans.
The winner of the game will be rewarded with a clear path to the semifinal round, as they had the good fortune to be paired with third-tier team GVVV in two weeks.
Whoever comes out as victor in this Cup match will certainly have the upper hand for the second meeting between these teams three days later in Alkmaar in league action, in a game which could very well signal a shift in the balance of power in the Eredivisie title race.
The winter pause was kind to AZ, as they came out of their mid-season preparations in Turkey without any injuries. The only player missing from the squad as compared to the end of last year is midfielder Pontus Wernbloom, who was sold to CSKA Moscow early in the transfer window.
The same cannot be said for the hosts, who will be without the services of four injured players in the squad. Most critically, starting defender Gregory van der Wiel, who is out with a groin injury.
Additionally, bench forwards Lorenzo Ebecilio and Derk Boerrigter are both out with back problems, and occasionally-used defender Nicolai Boilesen is suffering from a hamstring pull.