By Stefan Coerts | Dutch Football Editor
When then-president Dirk Scheringa was forced to step down as AZ supremo in October 2009 only a few months after leading the club to only their second Eredivisie title, the Alkmaar club were widely expected to lose their place among Netherlands' elite and be condemned to mid-table football again. Nevertheless, two years later, AZ sit atop the table ahead of Saturday's away match against Ajax following an impressive start to the 2011-12 season.
Much of the credit for AZ's return to the summit should go to head coach Gertjan Verbeek and sporting director Earnie Stewart, who have done an excellent job in rebuilding the squad after the departures of several star players. However, the individual who has played the lead role in the club's success story this term is Sweden international Rasmus Elm.
The 23-year-old joined from Kalmar in the summer of 2009 after impressing at the Uefa European Under-21 Championship in his homeland and was tipped as a future Eredivisie star. He initially failed to live up to sky-high expectations in Alkmaar as he was unable to find his best form and was plagued by injuries.
|CAREER STATISTICS | Rasmus Elm (AZ & Sweden)
Attributes: Passing, shooting, movement
|Height||Club||Weight||Place of Birth||Former club|
The loss of skipper Stijn Schaars to Sporting Lisbon in the summer transfer has done the Kalmar-born midfielder a world of good, though; he has flourished in the past three months since being installed at the heart of his side's midfield engine. The somewhat shy playmaker previously seemed to hide behind the influential Schaars, but the extra responsibilities he has got this season have given him a huge confidence boost.
Elm continually instructs his fellow midfielders, Pontus Wernbloom and Adam Maher, is not afraid to demand possession and is always available to receive a pass because of his intelligent movement off the ball.
However, the characteristics that have most stood out this term are his impressive shooting and passing. Elm has already found the net on six occasions in eight Eredivisie appearances and his superb long-range strikes make life difficult for any goalkeeper. Additionally, he barely gives the ball away and his brilliant assist for Maher's goal in the 3-1 league win over VVV is already a candidate for pass of the season.
|"Several Serie A and Premier League clubs want to sign him. I won't mention any names, but we're talking about big clubs."
- Patrick Mork, agent
Unsurprisingly, Elm's outstanding performances haven't gone unnoticed elsewhere and his agent Patrick Mork recently revealed that a number of Italian and English clubs have shown an interest in acquiring his services.
"Several Serie A and Premier League clubs wanted to sign him last summer and there is again a lot of interest in him right now. I won't mention any names, but we're talking about big clubs. A transfer at the end of the season can't be ruled out," said Mork.
With clubs from the so-called big leagues taking note of Elm's progress, it appears to be a matter of time before he says farewell to the Eredivisie, and it will be interesting to see what the future has to offer. He won't be the first Swede to leave the Dutch top tier for another league and his compatriots have enjoyed mixed fortunes in the past.
Prolific striker Marcus Berg, for example, left Groningen for Hamburg in the summer of 2009 and was one of the most sought-after players around in Europe at the time. Nevertheless, he has been unable to make an impact in the Bundesliga and is mainly warming the bench at his current club.
The most famous Swede to have switched the Eredivisie for a bigger league is AC Milan's Zlatan Ibrahimovic, though. The flamboyant attacker has worn the jersey of clubs such as Juventus, Inter, Barcelona and AC Milan and Elm will be keen to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious countryman.
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