Beware of Russians bearing Goals
by Greg Gavalas
AGONAsports' Greg Gavalas talks about AEK's Champions League qualifier against CSKA Moscow.
It was supposed to be a night to remember... AEK's return to the Champions League after 10 years and the green light for the new AEK Stadium – Agia Sophia to be built where the Nikos Goumas used to stand at Nea Filadelfia
The stadium part is still on track, for Greek standards that is, the green light has been lit and construction is due to start when Greek time allows it, I am still in a waiting stage to be honest, the drama to get this building just approved has been one big Greek drama, until I see bulldozers there and construction underway I am not getting my hopes up just yet.
Onto the football... a decade later AEK makes the Champions League qualifiers after winning the Greek Playoffs from last season as I predicted they would, and were drawn to face Russian giants CSKA Moscow, first game in Athens and after what looked like an ok pre-season (vs modest opposition for the most part) many expected a good showing and I think the biggest outcome expected was a draw, but to keep the Russians goalless nonetheless.
It was anything but that, a bewildered 35,000 fans watched on as CSKA Moscow looked more comfortable for most of the match, AEK's best chance was that in the start of the match when Astrit Ajdarevic's first time volley sailed just wide of the post from a cleared corner. CSKA scored a couple of very easy headers just before half time and right after halftime to all but put the nail in the coffin for the first leg.
Truth be told the team from Moscow was unlucky not to leave 3-0 or 4-0 winners while AEK struggled to penetrate the Russian defense and was held to long range shots at the Russian goal with no shot really testing the goalkeeper, so why did this happen?
The sad truth is, 12 months ago the Europa League play off with Saint Etienne was more competitive and much more was expected from coach Manolo Jimenez who seems to have forgotten what worked in preseason and lined up a very nervous team for this match.
The result also calls out the lack of real investment in the team, the club is not putting real money into purchases, AEK looks for loan deals, it's why Nacho Scocco is still in Argentina and why we are relying on journeyman Marko Livaja to lead the goals and not last year's shining light Sergio Araujo with the club now.
Jimenez line up a 4-3-3, with Livaja up front, Petros Mantalos on one wing and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos on the other. It’s been very well publicized that Mantalos does not play well on the wing, he is a central midfielder and where he played most of the pre-season, he had a sub-par game. Livaja was not a great presence up front, he set up a great chance to Lazaros but other than that, was invisible. This is a striker whose best season comes with 5 goals to his name... The best player up front in pre-season was Giorgos Giakoumakis and he was not even on the bench!
The Russian side played a long ball game that really troubled AEK, the midfield trio of Andre Simoes, Jacob Johanssen and Ajdarevic were made to turn and run for much of the game but in attack none of the holding midfielders lead the team forward which is where the absence of Mantalos suffocated the team, as the game went on, AEK started to lob balls forward but the tall Russians didn’t have much issues taking care of that.
Two players that are really concerning me, and funny enough the friendly game with Genk personifies this to perfection is goalkeeper Giannis Anestis and central defender Dmytro Chrygrinskiy. There seems to be a real lack of communication between the two, if anyone saw the goal conceded against Genk you will see what I mean.
Anestis has been average to ok at best in his time with AEK, he is a great shot blocker and denied CSKA the opportunity to go 3-0 up but his presence in set pieces is almost nonexistent, add to that some horrible goals conceded in the past due to his mistakes, the recipe was there and the Russians pored the ingredients in.
Chrygrinksiy was a rock last year so I am surprised to see his form of late, it's early on but he looks slow and his marking off the corners was very wrong which gifted CSKA a couple of easy headers, he was troubled by the long balls played forward by the Russian team. This will need to improve for the Super League and Europe.
All in all, it was a big fail on the field, to not go near scoring is a worry, the fact CSKA could have scored more goals is a huge concern.
Do we have a chance in Moscow? Chances are very slim however I think Jimenez needs to do much better in terms of line up.
We may have to go with Anestis in goal as there is no other options from an experience perspective, the wing backs did ok but I think the opportunity is in attack.
Mantalos needs to be played in the center of midfield, and get Viktor Klonaridis behind Giakoumakis. When Klonaridis came on in the second half he actually caused issues for the older CSKA defenders, Giakoumakis is also much faster and a better finisher than Livaja. Play Lazaros on the opposite side to Klonaridis or give Patito Rodriguez a chance, fast and nimble, will cause problems for the defense.
I would play two holding mids as a result in Ajdarevic with either Johnasson or Simoes.
A week is a long time in football, in a past blog I mentioned Jimenez's tenancy to go covert in big games... we are down 2-0 time for full offence with nothing to lose.