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May 8, 2007

The serial chokers from Alkmaar

You can't help but feel for them. Being an AZ fan is great during the season when the club delights the world with their sparkling displays of attacking football, but when it comes to picking up trophies...

Within a couple of years they have acquired a knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This weekend, another heartbreaking chapter of inadequate finishing sent thousands of mourning supporters back to Alkmaar after a dramatic cup final in Rotterdam. And this may not be the end.

It all started two years ago. Trainer Co Adriaanse had managed to mix an exciting and energetic style with efficiency as his team had taken second place, closing in on the mighty PSV and keeping a seven point cushion on Ajax. They stared the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.

Meanwhile they marched impressively through the UEFA Cup, having just beaten Shakthar Donetsk twice to enter the quarter final.

April came with eleven games in 32 days. Could they manage? No. In a nightmarish scenario they lost five out of seven league matches. While they slipped to third in the league, they lifted themselves in the games against Sporting Lisbon. The final loomed as they went ahead 3-1 in the final minute when Adriaanse tried to waste time with a substitution.

However, the substitute gave away an unnecessary corner and with only fifteen seconds on the clock the shoulder of Sporting's Garcia nodged the ball through the legs of Kenneth Perez into the net. No final and, two weeks later, the worthless third place became a fact when they finished the league season with two more defeats.

Adriaanse could not handle the breakdown and departed disgruntled within hours after the humiliating home loss against RBC Roosendaal on the final day. He was replaced by Louis van Gaal who managed to pick everyone up and even found a higher gear in the new league season. Again they won the hearts of football fans, playing with more panache than clinical runaway leaders PSV, and settled into a well-deserved runners-up spot.

This used to give the right to play in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, but no longer with the introduction of play-offs.

Pitted against fifth-placed FC Groningen, AZ seemed to have a walkover but they were lucky to escape a hiding in the Euroborg Stadium and only kept a lifeline with an extra-time goal by Jaliens for 3-1. At home, AZ took a 2-0 lead but could not hold on. They were out. It had been the second best season ever for them points wise, but again their hands were empty and their eyes filled with tears.

During the summer the squad was rejuvenated with internationals like Danny Landzaat (Wigan Athletic), Joris Mathijssen (Hamburger SV) and Kenneth Perez (Ajax) leaving.

Little was expected but when the first match in their new DSB-Stadium was celebrated with an 8-1 rout over NAC Breda, there was little doubt that Louis van Gaal had done it again. He is an expert in finding the right players for his style of play and taking the best out of them.

This season his young team managed to stay in three competitions deep into the spring. Werder Bremen proved to be too strong for them in the quarter final of the UEFA Cup, but the next week the temporary signs of fatigue were wiped away with a 6-0 drubbing of, again, hapless NAC Breda in the semi-final of the cup.

Thanks to the stumbling of PSV, AZ were front runners in the league at the kick-off of the final match day. Their goal average was far superior to rivals Ajax and PSV so only a win was needed at relegation candidates Excelsior in Rotterdam, whose supporters had sold their season tickets to the eager AZ fans over the internet as the ground only holds 3.300 spectators.

What could go wrong? Everything. Again. Having wasted some chances early on, the team saw their keeper Boy Waterman pick up a red card halfway through the first half. Simon Cziommer could equal the converted penalty within minutes but it was a harbinger of trouble to come.

Excelsior were dangerous on the break and scored another after an hour through Henrico Drost. It took ten minutes for an equalizer, then Excelsior's René van Dieren was shown his second yellow card. Ten against ten, a lucky break! Still twenty minutes to score that single title winning goal. Koevermans did rattle the post, but that was the best AZ could do and it all petered out near the end.

To make it worse, Voskamp scored the winner for the home team in injury time before the desperate eyes of the AZ fans. Unbeaten in the league in 2007 they found their Waterloo at the most unlikely place they could think of as more than half of the visits to Woudenstein had been victorious in the past. Not this time.

The festivities were called off and title-winning merchandise hastily destructed. The players had seen the chairman of the Dutch FA parading with the official championship plate at the ground.

They may have dreamt about lifting it themselves and forgot to make the step in between: take the three points.

Ajax in the meantime suffered the same fate of being one goal short of the title. Both fumblers met in the cup final in Rotterdam this weekend and fifteen thousand supporters took the bus from Alkmaar for the same route they had travelled with such different emotions the week before. Tickets had been sold out at the time when the club looked the title right in the eye, so it should have been a victory parade.

Now they hoped to get rid of the sour taste and at least pick up a prize for the first time in 25 years. Enough with the compliments and being 'Champions of the heart'. Within five minutes they took the lead by talented striker Moussa Dembele and seemed to score a second, but this was annulled by the linesman for a handball. Some penalty claims were made, but not given. Huntelaar equalized for Ajax, but AZ still had the best chances.

A minute from time, Ajax's Gabri was sent off the pitch. In extra-time only the team from Alkmaar played, with the ten men of Ajax hanging on to their fingernails. Chances galore, but yet again AZ could not finish. Penalties. Seven were coolly converted on both sides. Then youngster Ryan Donk stepped up.

Most of their fans just could not watch any more and missed seeing Maarten Stekelenburg clouting the ball over the crossbar. Of course, Edgar Davids did score. And there they went again. Heads held in hands or shaken in disbelief. Why them all the time? Now it's the play-offs with a double header against FC Twente, whom they have not even beaten this season.

If they go through there will be the play-off final and if successful still the qualifier for the Champions League in August. All against opponents who realize they meet a team of chokers. Where will they fail dramatically this time? How much can an AZ supporter take?


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