La Liga leaders Real Sociedad and Eredivisie side AZ meet again in Europa League Group F on Thursday, three weeks after a 1-0 home win for the Basque club which saw them join their Dutch rivals – and rivals Napoli – on six points.
What looks set to be a three-way tussle for two knockout places will intensify in Alkmaar, as red-hot Real seek to add continental progress to their remarkable early-season league form.
Victors in their opening two group games - the first of them an against-the-odds win in Naples - AZ's perfect start was brought to an end on in San Sebastian earlier this month, when a single goal from midfielder Portu – his first in Europe – was enough to give Real Sociedad all three points.
Despite that defeat, AZ have an excellent historic record against Spanish opposition and have never lost at home to visitors from Spain - the most recent three all producing 2-1 wins, one of which came against La Real's Basque rivals Athletic Club in the 2015-16 group stage.
AZ come into this game following a 1-0 win over 10-man Emmen in the Eredivisie last weekend, which leaves them in a rather disappointing seventh spot, after coming within touching distance of the title during last season's prematurely terminated campaign.
On Sunday, a goal from former Feyenoord and Porto defender Bruno Martins Indi secured the win for Arne Slot's side, who have so far drawn five of their eight games and remain unbeaten in the league.
With highly-rated youngsters Teun Koopmeiners - current captain at 22 - and Calvin Stengs, now 21, still in harness, the 1980-81 UEFA Cup runners-up certainly boast enough talent to trouble their more illustrious visitors on Thursday, but recent injuries to some of their more experienced campaigners have undermined preparations for an already mountainous assignment.
Improbably, given their long and rich history, the recent contest in Alkmaar was Sociedad's first ever European fixture against a team from the Netherlands, so naturally they can boast a 100% win rate against Dutch clubs. Their consistent form since September suggests that record can be prolonged against AZ.
Imanol Alguacil's impressive side have lost just once in domestic action this season, now leading Atletico Madrid by three points at the top of the table after Sunday's 1-0 win at Cadiz. Swedish striker Alexander Isak scored the only goal of the game - heading home after an excellent left-footed cross from former Manchester United prodigy Adnan Januzaj.
The Basque club have now won six on the bounce in Spain and were entirely dominant against their Andalusian hosts, having 72% of the ball - characteristic of how their coach wants them to play. Sixteen of Real's first-team squad came through their youth academy and current boss Imanol coached several of them while working in the academy, creating a pleasing style of play which is consistent throughout the club.
However, inspirational playmaker David Silva now faces a spell on the sidelines after injuring his left hamstring last week, having started eight of 10 league matches for La Real since his summer arrival from Manchester City on a free transfer. There are several other creative forces to step into his shoes though.
In the San Sebastian 'leg' between these clubs, match-winner Portu, Mikel Oyarzabal, Nacho Monreal and Aritz Elustondo were all denied by the inspired goalkeeping of AZ's Marco Bizot before ex-Girona forward Portu ultimately sealed the deal in the second half.
The former Groningen stopper set a record number of clean sheets in the Eredivisie during 2019, surpassing ex-Feyenoord and Chelsea man Ed de Goey's 1991 streak. Undoubtedly, the Ajax academy product - capped once by his country - will be heavily called upon again on home turf, as an open encounter appears certain to offer chances to a fluent and fearsome Sociedad strike force.
AZ Europa League form: WWL
AZ form (all competitions): DWWLWW
Real Sociedad Europa League form: WLW
Real Sociedad form (all competitions): WLWWWW
Early reports in Spain suggest that David Silva could be ruled out for around two weeks with his hamstring injury sustained against Cadiz, while Real coach Imanol will also be without long-term absentees Luca Sangalli and ex-Real Madrid midfielder Asier Illarramendi, plus right-back Andoni Gorosabel.
Alexander Isak will lead the line with support from Mikel Oyarazabal and Portu, though Adnan Januzaj could be handed a start out wide in a flexible 4-1-4-1.
AZ coach Arne Slot is likely be without veteran ex-Aston Villa centre-back Ron Vlaar and former Feyenoord and Southampton midfielder Jordy Clasie, who are both doubts due to injury. However, Vlaar may yet be pressed into action if deemed fit before kickoff. Midfielder Jeremy Helmer is also out with a leg injury.
An adventurous 4-2-3-1 set up saw Slot's side concede more than 20 shots on goal in each of their contests with Napoli and Sociedad, but is unlikely to be greatly altered, with Albert Gudmundsson, Dani De Wit and Calvin Stengs providing the creative thrust in attack.
AZ possible starting lineup:
Bizot; Svensson, Chatzidiakos, Martins Indi, Wijndal; Koopmeiners, Midtsjo; Stengs, De Wit, Karlsson; Gudmundsson
Real Sociedad possible starting lineup:
Remiro; Elustondo, Le Normand, Sagnan, Monreal; Merino; Oyarzabal, Guevara, Zubimendi, Portu; Isak
We say: AZ 1-1 Real Sociedad
AZ were unfortunately denied a justified shot at the title last spring and have started this Eredivisie season unbeaten. A talented bunch can draw inspiration from their win over Napoli to hold another grand European name to a draw in Alkmaar this week.
In David Silva's absence - and with the necessity to rotate apparent for Imanol - a point would still represent a decent result for La Real, as the battle for Group G supremacy goes to the wire.
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