Gallant effort by PAOK as they fail yet again at the final hurdle
With PAOK’s UEFA Champions League run coming to an end at the final hurdle on Wednesday night, AGONAsport’s PAOK contributor, Athan Stylos, takes a look at PAOK’s six matches throughout their qualifying campaign..
Easily taking care of FC Basel
Going into the tie, PAOK were underdogs against the Swiss outfit. PAOK secured a slender league to take back to Switzerland starting with a stunning long-range goal from Spanish midfielder Jose Canas. Aleksandar Prijovic scored with ten minutes remaining and it looked as if the Dikefalos tou Vorra would cruise to victory, but they suffered a late scare as Albian Ajeti headed home a late away goal to keep Basel in the tie. Troubles then appeared within the FC Basel club with their manager Raphaël Wicky being sacked after the conclusion of their 2-1 away loss to PAOK. This change ultimately affected the whole tie.
PAOK arrived in Switzerland and needed an early away goal to secure their place in the driver’s seat in which they found through a set piece and centre-back Fernando Varela. FC Basel hardly threatened as PAOK went on to score two goals in the second half thanks to Aleksandar Prijovic and Omar El Kaddouri as PAOK advanced to the third qualifying round where they would face Russian side Spartak Moscow.
Stunning comeback against Spartak Moscow
PAOK completed a remarkable comeback against Spartak Moscow after going down 0-2 within the opening 17 minutes during the first leg in Toumba. As all looked to be lost, PAOK’s remarkable fans willed their team on and played a huge part in getting the players back into the match. PAOK were awarded a penalty in which Aleksandar Prijovic calmly put away and Greek rising star, Dimitris Limnios, equalised for PAOK getting them back into the match rather quickly. Only seven minutes later, Dimitris Pelkas capitalised on an error from the young Spartak Moscow goalkeeper scoring a tap in, sending Toumba Stadium into raptures. PAOK goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis came up with a big save to deny the visitors an equaliser from the spot as PAOK took a slight advantage to their trip to Russia the following week.
PAOK manager Razvan Lucescu’s in-game management was on display throughout the second leg as PAOK tried to score a go-ahead goal to secure the tie. Having missed numerous chances at the 60th minute, Lucescu’s men decided to play more defensively and start their attacks on the counter. PAOK’s stubborn defensive play paid off and the Thessalonikis secured their place in the playoff round of the UEFA Champions League where they would take on Portuguese giants Benfica.
Heartbreak at Toumba
Coming into the tie full of confidence, PAOK were fully aware of the damage that the Portuguese club could cause. PAOK were under siege for most of the first leg against away to Benfica and PAOK conceded a penalty late on in the first half in which Pizzi converted giving Benfica a deserved lead at half time. Amr Warda came off the bench in the 53rd minute and soon thereafter, was the one who scored the all-important away goal for PAOK with a left footed shot from the centre of the box which found the bottom corner. PAOK took a 1-1 draw in Lisbon and were happy with the scoreline, feeling lucky to have come out even after 90 minutes.
In the second leg, PAOK fans at Toumba once again provided an incredible atmosphere for their team which seemed to rattle the Benfica players in the opening 15 minutes of the second leg. A training drill set play worked in PAOK’s favour with a gift for Serbian striker Aleksandar Prijovic to tap in, giving PAOK the crucial advantage early on. After looking shaky early on, Benfica recovered with an outstanding header from centre-back Jardel from a corner. An unforgivable error from PAOK goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis, who gave away an unnecessary penalty, changed the entire encounter as Eduardo Salvio scored in the 26th minute to give Benfica the led with two crucial away goals. It completely fell apart for PAOK from that point on, with Pizzi scoring in the 39th minute and a conceded penalty followed at the start of the second half, which Eduardo Salvio converted. Unfortunately, PAOK failed once again at the final hurdle in their quest for their first ever appearance in the UEFA Champions League group stages.
Overall, PAOK had a great run in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds but the better team advanced in the playoffs. PAOK will need to move on from the devastation of missing out on the Champions League group stages, which was their goal from the start of the season, and focus their attack on the rest of the Greek Super League season, in which they aim on winning. PAOK will still be involved in European Football this season and will play in the Europa League group stages with competition vourites Chelsea, BATE Borisov, and Vidi. The Thessalonikis will fancy their chances of making a good run in the competition as they currently house of the best rosters in recent memory