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European Spotlight: AZ Alkmaar

AZ Alkmaar is arguably the most well-known team that Aston Villa will come up against in their UEFA Europa Conference League group stage fixtures. Having made multiple appearances in European competitions, AZ isn't exactly a team that requires much of a spotlight. However, yours truly is a completionist and having already done spotlight articles on both Legia Warsaw and HSK Zrinjski, I would be remiss to not complete the set. So let's take a deep dive into everything Villa fans need to know about Thursday's trip to the Netherlands.

Brief History

AZ Alkmaar is a Dutch club from the Zaan district, roughly 27 miles north of Amsterdam. Although they are one of the most famous teams to come out of the Netherlands, they have actually only won the Eredivisie on two occasions in 1981 and 2009, the latter being under the leadership of Luis Van Gaal. They have, however, won the Dutch Cup four times as well as winning one Johan Cruyff Shield (Dutch super cup). Despite qualifying for European football in over twenty seasons, AZ are not seen as one of the "Big Three" clubs in Dutch football. That honour belongs to Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. Though, if you were to argue which club is the best of the rest, it would likely be between AZ Alkmaar and FC Twente. AZ currently sit comfortably in 2nd place in the Eredivisie, only two points behind leader PSV and having only lost one league game all season.

AZ have also had a fair bit of success in their European campaigns. Their greatest European achievement was reaching the old UEFA Cup final in 1981, however they came up short against Ipswich Town. Outside of that they have reached multiple quarter-finals in the Europa League as well as making it to the semi-final of last season's Conference League before being knocked out by eventual winners West Ham United. Needless to say, AZ is not a team lacking in European experience.

Players To Watch Out For

Head Coach Pascal Jansen likes to implement a 4-2-3-1 formation that provides plenty of opportunities for in-form striker Vangelis Pavlidis. The Greek born forward has been in blistering form as of late, he's currently on a six game scoring run for AZ which includes a hat-trick this past weekend against SC Heerenveen in the Dutch league. This brings Pavlidis to a whopping 13 goals in only nine league games so far this season. As well as two goals in the Conference League. There is absolutely zero doubt that Villa will have to be at their best defensively to contain AZ's lethal marksman.

Villa will also want to keep a close eye on AZ number 10 Dani de Wit. The 25-year-old attacking midfielder is one of the team's most creative players, racking up five goals and four assists so far this season. Elsewhere fans will recognise goalkeeper Matthew Ryan, formerly of Brighton, and defensive midfielder Jordy Clasie who had a brief stint at Southampton.

Stadium & Recent Controversy

AZ Alkmaar play their football at AZ Stadion which holds a maximum capacity of 19,478. Despite being the most successful club Villa will have to travel to in this group stage, AZ Stadion is actually a fair bit smaller than Legia Warsaw's stadium that holds around 10,000 more. However, that does not mean it will be any less intimidating for the players come game time. Just ask Legia Warsaw about that following their 1-0 loss and subsequent troubles following the game.

As has already been widely reported, two Legia Warsaw players ended up being arrested following the game. This was allegedly due to "harassment" after tempers flared due to the team bus apparently not being allowed to leave the stadium after the game. This mixed with multiple reports of fan troubles on both sides just goes to show this won't be an easy place to go. It's also worth remembering that West Ham also had problems when they traveled to AZ Stadion for their Conference League semi-final game last season only for the West Ham friends & family section of the ground to be attacked by AZ fans in an incident Pascal Jansen said made him feel "ashamed".

For all the traveling Villa fans, please stay safe and make sure you follow any necessary guidelines set out by the club.

Predicted Villa Lineup

As is quickly becoming the norm with these Conference League games, we can probably expect Unai Emery to make multiple changes to the starting 11. Though there are a few circumstances that may mean we see less swapping and changing than usual.

For one, the group is dead level with each team sat on three points each. It goes without saying that Villa will need to start pulling away soon if they want to qualify with as little stress as possible. What better way to do that than beating AZ in back-to-back games, to do that the team will need to feature a fair few first team regulars.

Secondly, Emery may have no choice but to start Ollie Watkins. Jhon Duran has been the go-to striker so far in Villa's European campaign, but with the Columbian suspiciously absent from the squad recently among rumours of a fallout with Emery and the club, Watkins is almost guaranteed his first start in group stage competition. And finally, it's never easy going away to Europe on a Thursday evening and then coming back to play Premier League football on a Sunday, but having said that you probably couldn't ask for a better fixture than Luton Town at home. No disrespect to the Hatters, but if there's ever a week to risk the legs of a few more starters in a mid-week game, it's this one.

So with all that in mind we can definitely expect a stronger starting 11 than the previous two Conference League games. As for the changes we are likely to see, Leon Bailey will probably come in for Moussa Diaby, and Youri Tielemans is almost guaranteed to come in for either Kamara or Luiz depending on which one Emery decides to rest. Elsewhere we may see Diego Carlos back in the defence with Konsa being shifted out to right back meaning Cash can be used as an impact sub if needed.

Kick off: 17:45

Location: AZ Stadion

Channel: TNT Sports 2

Thank you for reading. For even more Villa discussion make sure to check out the AVFC Faithful Podcast with Dan & James talking about the Villa games! More specifically they dive into Villa's 4-1 hammering of the hammers this past weekend as well as celebrating one year under Unai Emery.

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