AZ Alkmaar face a tricky trip to Romania on Thursday as they come up against Astra Giugiu in the first leg of their Europa League play-off.

az jopJohn van den Brom’s side eased past Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir in the previous round, but standing between them and a place in the Europa League group stage is Astra, who surprisingly knocked out Premier League side West Ham United to reach this stage.

AZ Alkmaar may have been impressive in Europe so far this season, but they have made a poor start to the Eredivisie, with a loss against Ajax being followed up by a 2-2 draw with Excelsior. Van den Brom knows his side have to improve if they are to bring a positive result back from Romania, and confirmed that he will start with three central defenders.

Van den Brom said, “If we give away as many chances as we did against Excelsior, it becomes a difficult story,”

“Their two best players are in the attack. I need to have three central defenders.”

New signings Alireza Jahanbakhsh and Rajko Brezancic are not available to play, but captain Jeffrey Gouweleeuw is included, despite voicing his dismay that a transfer to Olympiakos was blocked.

Possible AZ line-up: Rochet, Johansson, Haps, Gouweleeuw, van der Linden, Luckassen, Ortiz, Henriksen, Overeem, Hupperts, Janssen

Astra qualified for the competition for the third time in three years after finishing fourth in the Romanian league. Last season they reached the group stages, but finished bottom of a group containing Celtic, Dinamo Zagreb and Red Bull Salzburg. However the club has improved since last season, and they have not only seen off West Ham in the Europa League so far, but they also sit top of their league after seven matches.

Attacking midfielder Constantin Budescu will be the one to watch after netting four goals and adding to assists in six appearances.

Possible Astra line-up: Lung jr, Querios, Junior Mor, Gaman, Oros, Lovin, Boldrin, Budescu, Enache, William, Alibec

It is likely that AZ Alkmaar will defend in numbers in Romania, look to frustrate the Astra attack, and then hit on the counter with the pace of Hupperts and finishing of Janssen. Its a plan that worked in Turkey during the last round, but will it be enough to see of a clearly talented and very confident Astra side?

West Ham United may not have played their strongest side in the last round, but Astra’s performances in the Romanian league prove they are a force to be reckoned with, and it will be difficult for AZ to come away with a win. A good result for Van den Brom’s side will be a slim defeat with an away goal to take to Alkmaar next week.

Predicted scoreline: Astra 2-1 AZ

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