Adam Maher: The heart of AZ and their KNVB Beker triumph

“We beat Ajax in the semi-final and now we have beaten PSV. We deserved to win this competition,” declared a proud Gertjan Verbeek after he watched his AZ team beat the Eindhoven giants 2-1 to lift their first KNVB Beker in 31 years.

It was a hard fought but deserved victory for the Alkmaar club, who haven’t enjoyed the most prosperous campaign. Despite the quality in the squad, AZ have been painfully inconsistent all season and have spent the vast majority of it in the bottom half of the table, occasionally falling dangerously close to the relegation playoff spots.

The victory over PSV, however, came as the one bright spark to a dismal season and Verbeek was correct in his summary. This was AZ’s competition.

And it was Adam Maher’s final.

Maher celebrates the 1-0 after a majestic piece of skill.

Throughout the tournament, AZ have overcome hatred, racism and abuse from the likes of the FC Den Bosch fans and held off Dutch giants in the shape of the Eredivisie champions as well as the reigning KNVB Beker champions. But they ploughed through it all, shaking off the controversy and going on to lift the trophy. Gertjan Verbeek’s first major title win.

AZ and PSV went head-to-head only a few weeks ago in the league and the story was very different. The Cheese Farmers started the game brightly but failed to take their chances, for which they were duly punished as PSV found themselves 3-0 up within an hour before a consolation goal from Aron Johannsson.

The Noord Holland club learned from their mistakes and were better prepared this time around. They seized upon the early opportunities, with 19-year-old Maher opening the scoring in spectacular fashion two minutes before Altidore doubled the Alkmaar side’s lead with a fine finish. PSV’s own wonderkid Jurgen Locadia halved the deficit and ensured a tense closing hour to the game.

Dick Advocaat’s men enjoyed the better opportunities in the second-half, but throughout the entire 90 minutes, Maher was a constant source of inspiration and creativity for AZ. He has had a rough time with the club lately. His team have struggled, but he has remained consistent and in many games he has been their only hope in creating any danger, constantly creating chances for teammate Altidore. In January, he expressed his desire to leave the club for PSV, who made an official offer for his services, but AZ quickly rejected it, much to the player’s dismay.

Despite the disappointment of being denied a move to a bigger club challenging for the title, Maher has continued to give his all for his team and has been the beating heart of AZ. Although he has remained professional on the field, he has received a lot of criticism from supporters in recent weeks for admitting that he wants to join either Ajax or PSV in the summer. “I have done my best for this club for eight years. If they want to boo me again then they can,” was his reply to the hostility.

Regardless, the youngster has played through the jeers and hisses. He has shown how strong he is mentally and snubbed the disappointment of being shunned by the very fans he aims to please. Dazzling and mesmerising anyone who watches him, he has been in great form all season.

Last week’s penultimate Eredivisie clash against Zwolle was most likely Maher’s last ever home game for AZ. The starlet capped off a fine afternoon for his side by hitting the net. A fitting parting gift to the home crowd in the AFAS Stadion.

Thursday, however, was very different. AZ, desperate to finish the season with something to celebrate, were reliant on Maher and his partner in crime Altidore to provide them with a glimmer of hope against a strong PSV team. The duo delivered.

Maher was astounding. Altidore a delight. The 19-year-old consistently got the better of PSV’s veteran midfielder Mark van Bommel throughout the match, just like he did in the previous meeting between the teams. Also, he left fellow Netherlands international Kevin Strootman in his shadow in the battle of the young midfield maestros.

After half-time, PSV dominated for much of the remainder as AZ were comfortable with their lead. But Maher continued to create opportunities for the team, driving towards goal or linking up well with Roy Beerens, Altidore and Johann Berg Gudmundsson. He was also quick to recede and help his team defend as they remained resilient to hold onto their advantage.

As the referee’s whistle brought an end to the match, the atmosphere was electric in De Kuip, as usual. But this time it wasn’t for Feyenoord. This was AZ’s day.

Maher celebrated with joy with the trophy in his hand. For a while it seemed there was no getting it away from him.

The teenager looks set to join Ajax or PSV, and there’s no blaming him for wanting to leave. He has, quite simply, outgrown AZ. This much has been clear for the majority of the season. From his next club, there is no telling where he will end up. He looks to be destined to end up at the highest level. But he will always know that his first success came at AZ.

After eight years of service, he has something to celebrate. The animosity towards Maher from the AZ fans may never go away, but at least he will leave the club a champion and having delivered European football to his team once again.

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