AEK fight back and control 2nd spot
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE (GROUP D) - MATCHDAY 5
|AEK||2 - 2||Rijeka|
AEK kept their hopes of reaching the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 alive on Thursday by clawing themselves back from 2-0 down to earn a 2-2 draw with Croatian champions Rijeka in a breathless Group D encounter at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.
Alexander Gorgon struck twice in the first half for an impressive Rijeka outfit, who could have been 4-1 up at half-time having also hit the woodwork twice during a dominating first-half display.
But, after Sergio Araujo pulled a goal back for AEK just before the break from close range, Manolo Jimenez’s team were a different proposition in second half, pulling level through Lazaros Christodoulopoulos’ header in the 55th minute.
A rousing finale saw AEK lay siege to the Rijeka goal as they desperately searched for a winner, but Araujo hit the bar late on as the visitors clung on for a draw.
The result means AEK remain in second spot behind group winners AC Milan with seven points, and need simply to avoid defeat in their final group match away against Austria Vienna to go through.
Austria Vienna and Rijeka have four points and are third and fourth respectively heading into the final matchday in two weeks.
AEK, who won 2-1 in Croatia in the sides' matchday one meeting, were a shadow of the team from that performance in a woeful first-half display.
The match began in ominous fashion with AEK almost caught napping in the fourth minute. Marko Vesovic sprang the hosts’ offside trap before crossing to the unmarked Mario Gavranovic, but the Rijeka No. 17 narrowly failed to connect with an outstretched boot and the ball rolled to safety.
Four minutes later and that early warning was not heeded, however, with Rijeka opening the scoring from their first corner of the match.
And it was poor defending from AEK, with Maxwell Acosty rising easily to flick on Domagoj Pavicic’s right-wing corner for Gorgon to head past nervy-looking goalkeeper Giannis Anestis, who had no time to react.
The visitors threatened again eight minutes later with centre-back Leonard Zuta heading another corner, this time taken by Acosty, off the crossbar with Anestis beaten.
The Croats were at it again in the 20th minute, the impressive Gorgon dribbling down the left before cutting inside to unleash a low shot which came back off the post with Anestis scrambling across goal, while Acosty also headed over five minutes later from another corner.
A minute later and Gorgon did get his second of the night to make it 2-0 as AEK looked a complete shambles. Home defender Ognjen Vranjes came to meet a long ball but got his angles wrong with the ball spinning backwards off his head and into the path of the Rijeka No. 20, who lashed a powerful shot past Anestis’ flailing dive.
That prompted Jimenez to act, and the Spanish coach sent on striker Marko Livaja in place of defender Rodrigo Galo.
AEK looked more balanced and attack-minded from then on, but it still took them 45 minutes to even register an effort on goal, with Lazaros Christodoulopoulos stinging the palms of Rijeka goalkeeper Andrej Prskalo with a long-range free-kick.
AEK were then offered a glimmer of hope in added time when, out of nowhere, Araujo stole in to prod home a hopeful cross from Michalis Bakakis moments before the half-time whistle.
There was more passion and coherency in AEK’s play after the break and remarkably they pulled level 10 minutes in, Christodoulopoulos heading into an empty net after Prskalo punched Tasos Bakasetas’ free-kick straight to the Greece international.
Araujo thought he had scored a superb winner when he headed home a Helder Lopes cross after 63 minutes but the little Argentine forward was rightly penalised for climbing on the back of his marker, much to the dismay of the home fans.
Araujo then missed a glorious chance to win it for AEK when he prodded a shot against the bar two minutes from time.
That goal would have propelled AEK into the knockout stages of a major European competition for the first time in 10 years, but now the clubs fans must wait to see if that can be achieved.