AEK return to European group stages
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - GROUP D (MATCHDAY 1)
|Rijeka||1:00 PM (EST)||AEK|
AGONAsport.com’s Peter Katsiris previews AEK’s clash with Croatian side HNK Rijeka on Matchday 1 in the UEFA Europa League…
AEK’s European campaign resumes on Thursday night as the Athenian side travels up the Adriatic Sea to face Balkan neighbours HNK Rijeka in the curtain-raiser for the UEFA Europa League group stage.
Fresh off a 4-0 defeat of Larissa in the Super League on Sunday, AEK will look to build on that momentum with a strong performance against a Rijeka side that has already had a run-in with Greek opposition this summer.
As was the goal for AEK, Rijeka were also targeting a spot in the UEFA Champions League group stage. An aggregate defeat to Olympiacos in the play-off round of qualifying for the Champions League, meant Croatia’s Champions would have to settle for a spot in European football’s auxiliary competition.
Despite the club’s lofty goals, Rijeka are making just their third appearance in the Europa League group stage. Meanwhile, AEK will look to make the most of a return to the group stage of a European competition after a six-year hiatus.
Manager Matjaz Kek has a full complement of players to choose from for Thursday’s fixture, but a 7-0 dismantling of Cibalia at the weekend might make the team selection a little more difficult.
Andre Simoes was included in the AEK squad for the trip to Croatia; the Portuguese midfielder resumed regular training earlier this week, but the role he’ll play in Thursday’s game isn’t quite yet clear. Meanwhile, Rodrigo Gallo was a late scratch and is out of the line-up along with Kostas Galanopoulos (pneumonia), Panagiotis Kone (fitness), Dmytro Chygrynskiy, Vassilis Lampropoulos, and Giorgos Giakoumakis. Patricio Roriguez has also been ruled out as the Argentine looks to finalize a transfer to Australian outfit Newcastle Jets.
HNK Rijeka: Sluga, Vesovic, Martic, Zuparic, Elez, Males, Misic, Bradaric, Gorgon, Gavranovic, Heber
AEK: Anestis, Helder Lopes, Cosic, Vranjes, Bakakis, Klonaridis, Simoes, Johansson, Christodoulopoulos, Mantalos, Livaja
9/9/17 Rijeka-Cibalia 7-0 (Croatian First Football League)
8/26/17 Inter Zapresic-Rijeka 1-3 (Croatian First Football League)
8/22/17 Rijeka-Olympiacos 0-1 (UEFA Champions League Qualifying)
8/19/17 Rijeka-Lokomotiva Zagreb 2-1 (Croatian First Football League)
8/16/17 Olympiacos-Rijeka 2-1 (UEFA Champions League Qualifying)
9/10/17 AEK-Larissa 4-0 (Greek Super League)
8/27/17 PAS Giannina-AEK 0-0 (Greek Super League)
8/24/17 AEK-Club Brugge 3-0 (UEFA Europa League Qualifying)
8/20/17 AEK 2-1 Panaitolikos (Greek Super League)
8/17/17 Club Brugge-AEK 0-0 (UEFA Europa League Qualifying)
Thursday will mark the first meeting between the two clubs, but back-to-back losses to Olympiacos remain a fresh wound for Rijeka. Despite losing both legs, Rijeka did hold their own and narrowly caused an upset; a bit of misfortune the Croatian titleholders will look to reverse.
AEK haven’t faced Croatian opposition since the qualifying campaign for the 2010/2011, but the Athens-based clubs has notched four wins from four in matches against their Balkan neighbors. Two further meetings with Rijeka’s domestic rivals Dinamo Zagreb (then representing Yugoslavia), saw AEK split the results (W1 L1) en route to an aggregate defeat.
Despite taking domestic honours in Croatia last season, Rijeka have already had a busy run-in this season having gone through three rounds of qualifying en route to the Europa League group stage.
After creating a healthy amount of chances in their tie against Olympiacos last month, the 3-1 aggregate defeat was certainly a bitter pill to swallow
A first-ever foray into the knockout rounds of the Europa League proper is undoubtedly the goal going forward. Winless in their last four European fixtures (D2 L2), Rijeka will look to their unbeaten record at home in the group stage of European competition (W2 D4), for a bit of inspiration.
With Rijeka struggling to score in their recent home European fixtures, Kek will be hoping that the seven goals his side notched at the weekend will be a foreshadowing of a goal rush against AEK. Kek might also have a secret weapon in former Panathinaikos prospect and Greek youngster Charis Mavrias, who has since joined Rijeka on a transfer this summer.
AEK are also familiar with scoring woes in Europe, particularly away from home having not found the back of the net in their last three European fixtures. Jimenez will also be hoping that his side have started to peak offensively after a quartet of goals against Larissa last weekend.
With just one in their last seven European fixtures away from home, AEK will look to use the lessons already learnt from this young campaign to progress past the group stage for the first time since the 2007/2008 UEFA Cup.
The news that Simoes passed a late fitness test to make the squad will act as a boost, especially after the Portuguese midfielder struck twice against Club Brugge in the play-off round. Lazaros Christodoulopoulos also scored against Brugge last month, and another energetic display from the Greek midfielder could go a long way in determining Thursday’s result.