AEK Marches On
AGONAsport’s Greg Gavalas discusses the key players and factors that helped AEK reach the Last 32 of the UEFA Europa League.
There is something special in the air for AEK at the moment. The Enosi of Athens has so far had a stellar season and not only domestically, AEK has had a great time in Europe too and has secured a passage in the Round of 32 in the UEFA Europa League. Domestically, they sit first and will be looking to see 2017 out as Winter Champions.
It's been 6 weeks since AEK last lost a match in the league and it's the second time in their European history that AEK has gone through their group stage undefeated. The first was in the 2002/03 UEFA Champions League where they draw all 6 games against Real Madrid, Roma and Racing Genk, not a bad effort.
All this has happened without their two best players one must not forget, on the 30th of October, in the away match to Panionios, AEK's captain, Petros Mantalos re-injured his ACL, a bad injury and one that could not have come at a worse time for such a talented player and with where AEK is heading this season. Mantalos adds another dimension to AEK's attack and even with the good run the team is on now, there has certainly been games, especially in Europe, I feel AEK could have won and not drawn.
Two weeks later, on the 13th of November, AEK's other stalwart Sweden International Jakob Johansson also suffered a serious knee injury in the historic FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Italy at the San Siro, and it was Johanssons goal that does not see the Azzuri at the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Whilst both key players have been missed in one way or another, AEK has been able to soldier on. Since the Atromitos defeat (0-1) AEK came away with two big and critical wins over Panionios and PAOK. The game with Panathinaikos at Leoforos finished a draw 1-1 but this was certainly a game AEK could have won and broken their 12-year hoodoo at the Greens stadium.
Since then, comfortable wins over Platanias and away to Levadiakos. It's important to note it was a comfortable win in Levadia, whilst Levadiakos's form has been poor, for many years now, the critical point of the Greek Super League and the dominance of Olympiacos has come to a few key points, but one of the main, is the form of AEK, Panathinaikos and PAOK when it comes to away games and the amount of points these teams drop in comparison to Olympiakos.
Even if a AEK, PAOK or Panathinaikos beat Olympiacos, it matters for little when the next week or week after you lose or draw to the other teams, and the other 3 have been guilty of this for the last 20 odd years. This will be the key for AEK, and some players have also noted this which means the club is well aware of this. Despite the loss of Mantalos and Johansson, AEK have seen some players step up, they key ones are:
Lazaros Christodoulopoulos – Since returning from Serie A, the 30-year-old midfielder has really found his good form again. Since joining AEK at the start of last season, Lazaros has scored more goals in 1.5 seasons with the Enosi than the previous 6 seasons – I think that says it all.
Marko Livaja – The Croatian forward is on loan from Las Palmas, he came with a few raised eyebrows, he has a history poor discipline on the field (12 yellow cards last season in La Liga) and his goal scoring record is anything but impressive... You cannot substitute confidence though or put a price on it and what we have seen from Livaja this season is a real coming of age for the skillful forward. At 24, Marko needed to make his mark and it's safe to say he has done that at AEK. He has been a leader along with Lazaros and Andre Simoes the last month and has scored some critical goals which is what Livaja needed, Like Lazaros, in half a season the Croat has scored more than his previous 4 seasons combined!
Andre Simoes – The Portuguese midfielder is now in his third season with AEK, he has been a workhorse like every other season but he has lost his Swedish partner in crime. Simoes will need to keep youn-gun Kostas Galanopoulos in line who has spent most time in Johansson's spot, but there is also Panagiotis Kone who has a wealth of experience that should be able to help, as well as another Swede in Astrit Ajdarevic.
Ognjen Vranjes – The Bosnian International fullback has been a AEK's king at the back all season, winning headers and many one on one battles, Vranjes is a hard defender for any opposition to get the better off, he has international experience and at 28 is in the best form of his life. AEK will need to do all they can to hold onto him, clubs from bigger leagues abroad are looking at Vranjes.
These four are key, but you cannot look away from other bright spots like Helder Lopez and Michalis Bakakis, both have been great on the wings.
Giannis Anestis, is in the best form of his career and made the Europa League best 11 after the matches with AC Milan, but there is a dark cloud on Giannis. The 26-year-old goalkeeper's contract is up soon with AEK. He and his manager have not agreed to what AEK has offered, with offers from England and Italy coming in, sadly it looks like Anestis will not see 2018 in Greece.
Panagiotis Tsintotas has been a reliable replacement since so hopefully he excels like so many have this season.
Tasos Bakasetas is the other player that holds a key role, he has received mixed reviews this season, the Mantalos injury means Baka needs to take the center midfield role on and we saw in the home match against Rijeka, after been 0-2 down, Bakasetas was the key to the 2-2 come back which saved AEK.
Finally, Sergio Araujo, the Argentine striker who came onto the scene with a bang last season has struggled to find that form this season and unexpectedly Livaja has outshone him. I mentioned earlier how AEK has gone through their second campaign in Euro group stages undefeated, they did so with 1 win and 5 draws, and whilst that's great, I really feel had the Argentine finished some easy chances AEK could and should have had at least 2 wins and secured qualification earlier. The missed sitters didn't hurt AEK in Europe, but it hurt their rankings and Greece's coefficients points in the Euro League standings.
AEK plays out 2017 with games at home and expected to win, then follows 3 games all back to back with Panetolikos for League and Cup, provided no hick ups, it should lay the groundworks for a good 2018 with no more key injuries.
Besides that, AEK fans pray for an ok draw in the round of 32, this will be hard to avoid though with Arsenal, Atletico Madrid, Sporting Lisbon, Lazio and Villarreal just to name a few possible opponents.