AEK Train on Track
By Greg Gavalas
AGONAsport’s Greg Gavalas discusses AEK’s big win over Olympiacos and successful start to the season.
What a start to the Greek Super League for AEK Athens, in their last 8 games, including (2 European games) AEK has won 6 and is now outright first in the Greek Super League with the best attack in the league, conceding their first goals of their campaign in the derby with Olympiakos (3-2).
Coach Manolo Jimenez has had the luxury of career best form from Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, the pacey midfielder has really stamped his mark at AEK and is reminding everyone why Liverpool tried so hard to get him back in his younger days.
Christodoulopoulos, who has made a mockery of defences and Greek National Team coach Michael Skibbe, has set up and scored some critical goals the last month, including the winner vs Lamia, opened the scoring against Lamia again in the Cup match, and was the star in AEK’s magical win over Olympiakos (OSFP), after coming back from a 2-0 deficit.
Lazaros opened the scoring for AEK with a great shot that beat Stefanos Kapino in the OSFP goal and then produced a free kick which most of Europe was talking about, as he curled the ball away from the keeper to tie the game up at 2-2. Ten minutes later Petros Mantalos scored the winner.
I really think Lazaros would have made a huge impact on the Ethniki had Skibbe picked him to play vs Estonia and Belgium, in games the Greek team drew and lost respectively, severely damaging the team’s chances of FIFA World Cup qualification. Lazaros will surely feature in the games with Cyprus and Gibraltar.
Another player in form is the captain, Mantalos. His link up play with the guys around him, including Lazaros and Marko Livaja has been excellent, if anything AEK needs to start converting their chances more.
With Kostas Fortounis on the Olympiakos bench, I also hope Skibbe realized this combo of Lazaros and Mantalos can go a long way for Greece. The two have scored in 6 of AEK’s last 7 matches to date.
One of AEK’s signings that has many question marks on it from day one was that of Livaja. The Croatian striker has not scored more than 5 goals in a season which I made mention of in pre-season and has not scored this season yet, HOWEVER, I don’t even know if you can class him as a striker. What Livaja does as good as anyone, is hold the ball up and create chances, I mean literally sculpting goals for the team, if you are doing that, it’s as good as a goal in my book.
Livaja’s technical ability lets him take on players and draw, two, three, sometimes four to him, which allows him to set up his teammates, as we saw in the Olympiacos game, where he set up Mantalos for a tap in.
The three way combo of Mantalos, Lazaros, and Livaja is doing wonders and will only get better when last season’s superstar, Sergio Araujo gets match fit.
The Argentine striker has opened his account with AEK this season but has shown to still be rusty without a proper pre-season under his belt. Great news for AEK is he will get better… bad news for the opposition.
The midfield artillery of Andre Simoes, Jakob Johansson, Kostas Galanopoulos and Astrit Ajdarevic seems to be rotating well, led by Mantalos and with Panagiotis Kone, Amor Traustason and Patricia Rodriguez still yet to really feature but as depth, it’s a good situation with European football, League, and Cup action filling the schedule.
Rodriguez will not be with the club come the summer though unless he is given more match time and I really hope that happens, he is a useful player, the reality is I can’t see this happening.
The other highlight for AEK has been their wing backs, Michalis Bakakis at right back and Portuguese left back Helder Lopes, who also comes from Las Palmas (aka Araujo and Livaja).
Bakakis, like Lazaros, should have been in the Greek National Team who played both the Estonia and Belgium games without a recognised right back. His runs and form for AEK have been great to watch, an injury prone player though, lets hope he can get through the season ok.
Lopes, likewise has won over the fans and staff with solid and dynamic performances in Greece and Europe.
I have to give much credit to the work horses in the heart of AEK’s defence, Ognjen Vranjes and Uros Cosic. When lead man Dmytro Chygrynskiy got injured a month ago, I doubt many expect the combo Vranjes and Cosic would create. The two have played their hearts out in every match and the great defensive numbers show it with AEK only conceding their first goals in open play on the weekend with OSFP.
With Chygrynskiy and Kostas Lambropoulos also coming back, it again gives Manolo great depth to play with.
The next month is a big one for AEK domestically and in Europe.
This Thursday AEK plays Austria Wien. It is a game AEK needs to win in order to be in a good position to progress past the group stage of the Europa League. Bakakis, Lopez and Simoes are doubtful for this matchup.
That is followed by two tricky away ties in Greece, with Asteras Tripolis up first just days after the Austria game. AEK has traditionally struggled in Tripoli but will have an international break to rest, well some of the players will after the trip to the Peloponnese.
After the break it’s Xanthi away on the 15th of October, one of the tougher venues in Greece, I call Xanthi the “0-0 specialists” so a win here would be excellent.
AEK will then travel to Milan and the San Siro, a game all AEK fans want to see and experience – this is due on the 19th of October and 4 days later at home to Atromitos.
I am confident form won’t be an issue but player health could be… its vital AEK players stay healthy, whilst the depth is there, I think some rotation is needed. Mantalos for example is key, when he is not present AEK struggles to create. Lazaros has been a man on a mission and Livaja putting goals on a plate – if AEK can get through this month injury free, the points should come. One thing is for sure, it’s a mouth-watering month that can lead to a mouth-watering season for the Enosi looking to break a 24 year championship drought.