AZ took complete control of the match as they built a 3-0 lead through goals from Simon Poulsen (31), Jozy Altidore (43) and Adam Maher (52) but they were then faced with a potentially tricky final half-hour after going down to 10 men and conceding a goal.

Willy Overtoom reduced the deficit from the penalty spot in the 57th minute after AZ defender Nick Viergever had been handed his marching orders, but that was as close as Heracles could get as AZ held on for the win that puts them above PSV Eindhoven, who play third-placed FC Twente tomorrow.

Fourth-placed Heerenveen missed the chance to move above FC Twente as they were held to a goalless draw at struggling ADO Den Haag.

At the other end of the table, Excelsior remain rooted to the foot of the standings after losing 1-0 at RKC Waalwijk, for whom Geoffrey Castillion netted the only goal on the stroke of half-time.

It was a better day for Excelsior's relegation rivals VVV-Venlo, though, as the third-bottom club moved level on 25 points with the three teams above them after staging a late fightback to defeat NAC Breda 2-1.

NAC, who were one of the sides three points above VVV at the start of play, took a 56th-minute lead through a Ismo Vorstermans own goal, but the hosts hit back with late goals from Robert Cullen (85) and Maya Yoshida (87) to claim the win.