By Greg Gavalas
It’s been a big month at AEK, after battling with Platanias, PAS Giannina and Xanthi for most of 2017, the team from Athens has won the battle and secured a spot in the Greek playoffs.
Having secured their playoff place, AEK has also secured a place in the Greek Cup final for the 2nd year running and will be looking to make it back-to-back Cup wins after last year’s efficient 2-1 win over Olympiakos in an empty stadium. AEK saw Olympiakos off with an aggregate score of 2-2, progressing via the away goals ruling despite losing at home 0-1.
AEK will now face PAOK in the final on Saturday after they beat Panathinaikos 4-2 on aggregate, winning 4-0 at home in a game that some considered a tad controversial.
As AEK and PAOK are in the Cup Final, that means all the playoff teams are assured a place in Europe next season, the winner will get a spot in the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, whilst 2nd and 3rd qualify for the UEFA Europa League and the third qualifying round, and 4th place starting their European quest early in the second qualifying round of Europa.
It’s going to be a big month for all four teams, particularly for AEK and PAOK, who compete in the Greek Cup Final on May 6th at Panthessaliko stadium in Volos.
AEK had a mediocre start to the season under new coach (and AEK legend) Temur Ketsbaia, in which AEK played some of the most anemic football on the planet. AEK management sacked Ketsbaia after a particularly embarrassing 3-0 loss to Olympiakos, and replaced him with Portuguese coach Jose Morias; he would go on to establish one of the worst records as an AEK coach.
Spanish coach Manolo Jimenez was re-signed to the team in late January and was instrumental in turning both the team’s form and fortunes around. Consistent wins became part of the team’s lexicon, including big wins over Olympiakos and PAOK at the OAKA.
The first loss under Jimenez came at the hands of rivals Panathinaikos (PAO) who prevailed 3-2 at OAKA. AEK recovered well since then and even went on to beat Olympiakos at Karaiskaki 2-1, a venue that has not been kind to AEK in the recent past.
Jiminez’ first foray coaching the club in the 2010/2011 season was somewhat successful, bringing with him our first Greek Cup win in almost a decade, although his record in derbies was less impressive. This time around, with 5 games played (3 with OSFP, 1 with PAOK and 1 with PAO) AEK has a 3-2 record in the derbies. Their form vs Olympiakos in the home 0-1 Greek Cup loss was a throwback to 2010/11 season.
With the regular season done, AEK needs to ensure that their form maintains a high standard if they are to win the playoffs and the Greek Cup--not an easy task--but those are their most pressing concerns.
It’s fair to say the permanent rotation between goalkeepers Barkas and Anestis will continue, with the former getting the nod in the final after Anestis’ immature red card antics in the semifinal.
The defense is quite set too with Brazilian Galo owning the right back spot and Spaniard Didac Vila on the left. Keep an eye out for Brazilian Vinicius Freitas to make some appearances too, he is a promising left back.
The injury to Kostas Lambropoulos comes at a bad time with so many games in close succession, so the rotation between the 3 main pillars at the back will be critical. Ukrainian ex-Barca defender Dmytro Chygrynskiy has been a rock when on his game but has been prone to injury through his entire career. 25 year old Greek defender Dimitrios Kolovetsios has had a promising season; he’s quite reliable and will be a crucial piece to the puzzle at the back.
Bosnian full back Ognjen Vranjes is a good defender but needs to keep his cool, as his lack of discipline could cost AEK over the coming months. Hopefully his sense of professionalism prevails.
The midfield is where we have seen the Jekyll and Hyde of AEK. For the most part the team has played well; Jakob Johansson has gotten better throughout the season although not at quite the level he was last season. Andre Simoes has followed suit with Johansson and the two had really cemented their claims in midfield.
Expect to see Swede Astrit Ajdarevic get in the mix; the 27-year-old has shown great form and scored the winner vs Olympiakos in the league match back in February. Greek youngster Kostas Galanopoulos will also be there to help rotation and is getting better with every progressive match.
The attacking players have had mixed success. Captain Kostas Mantalos’ form has been questionable this year. The Greek international, can be super effective one game and a poor the next. He will need to find some consistency if AEK is to reach their goals.
Around him Lazaros Christodoulopoulos has been a welcome addition on the wing, his energy has been great and giving the opposition a tough time, although he needs to ensure his final pass is effective. Patito Rodriguez has also been a great addition to the team but needs to muscle up and step up in some games. He was not very effective in the return game against Olympiakos at OAKA but caused the gavroi all kinds of havoc at Karaiskaki, while scoring what was eventually the winner of the tie.
These particular players will be the keys for AEK’s future success, and if they don’t fire, expect to see Ronald Vargas and Anastasios Bakasetas--two very capable players-- getting some game time. Vargas will have a point to prove to Jiminez, given the success he had last season while spending most of this season on the bench.
Sergio Araujo has been AEK’s star up front. the Argentine knows how to find the back of the net and provided he is given some service watch for him to make some headlines.
Tomas Pekhart is also very likely to see some game time and AEK’s favorite son Christos Aravidis will certainly be looking to help the team out.
It’s going to be a big test for AEK and the other teams involved as well. for the most part AEK has had a good 2017 and will need to be on par for the upcoming fixtures. I think AEK has a slight edge with depth; there are decent players to use in squad rotation, which could prove critical in the playoffs. Depth fosters healthy competition within the squad ranks and that can only be positive as AEK looks to conquer both the Cup and the coveted Champions League qualifying spot.