When the Dutch Eredivisie season started there was Ajax as the favorites, Twente as the challenger and PSV as the dark horse. The rest of the league was insignificant. At least that's what we thought. Now Ajax is down in fourth place and have failed to take full points from half of their eight matches so far. That doesn't sound like a defending champion or a favorite, so are Ajax really the favorites still?
If Ajax aren't the favorites anymore then who is? Maybe it is the current leaders, and surprise leaders at that, AZ Alkmaar. The 2009 champions have the top defense in the league, having allowed just six goals all year. Captain Niklas Moisander has been the anchor of that sterling defense, snuffing out nearly every attack the opposition brings his way. He has gotten considerable help from Nick Viergever too, his 22-year-old central defensive partner that has emerged as one of the top young players in the Eredivisie.
AZ have jumped to the top of the Eredivisie with 21 points, four clear of second place PSV and six clear of Ajax. While the table shows them to be an obvious contender for the league crown, some still have their doubts. Since beating PSV in their opening match of the season, AZ have played just one of the other top teams in the league and were easily dismissed by Twente, 2-0. That doesn't sound quite like a championship contender. That sounds like a team feasting on an easy schedule.
One result on Saturday could change that for AZ though. They head to Amsterdam to take on Ajax and if they come away with a result, well, it will be safe to call them contenders. The point total will no longer be a lie. THey will have had impressed. They will have beaten a top team, but will they have beaten the top team?
It will be difficult to call Ajax the top team in the Netherlands if they can't get three points on Saturday. Favorites do not drop points in more matches than they get full points from. Favorites are not tasked with getting a win at home and fail. Favorites do not give up more goals than all contending teams.
Going forward, Ajax haven't had much of a problem. Miralem Sulejmani, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Derk Boerrigte rare an incredible front three and Christian Eriksen behind them give Ajax plenty in the attack. The question is how to stop other teams from scoring. Their midfield might as well be allergic to tackling and Gregory van der Wiel's freelancing kills any sort of shape they have.
Maybe luckily for Ajax, van der Wiel is in doubt for the match as he rushes to get healthy. Undoubtedly a fine player, van der Wiel has been less disciplined than usual this season and this for a team in need of defensive discipline. If he can't go then Ajax will likely ditch their famed 4-3-3- for a 3-4-3, but that might be what it takes to get a midfielder to tackle upon occasion.
Is Ajax still the top team in Holland? Are AZ contenders that we should take seriously? They'll tell us on Saturday in front of a full Amsterdam Arena.