AEK clinch place in Europa League playoffs
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - 3rd QUALIFYING ROUND (LEG 2)
AEK eased into the Europa League playoffs on Thursday despite being held to a 1-1 home draw by Universitatea Craiova at the Olympic Stadium to complete a comfortable 3-1 aggregate victory over the Romanian club.
Having beaten Craiova 2-0 away in the 3rd qualifying round first leg clash last week, Miguel Cardoso’s men finished the job with albeit with a poor second-half display in this second leg encounter.
Petros Mantalos’ first-half goal had put AEK ahead but after Antoni Ivanov levelled for the visitors in the 63rd minute, it was all Craiova as they dominated the remainder of the half looking for more goals to save the tie.
A ragged-looking AEK held on for the draw though that means the Greek club are now just one step away from the group stages. The Kitrinomavri have to beat Trabzonspor in the playoffs.
AEK came into the match perfectly positioned to progress after building a healthy advantage in Romania, comfortably defeating their hosts 2-0 thanks to two second-half goals from Petros Mantalos and Marko Livaja.
And after a largely low-key opening, again in Athens the home side were the more creative force. It did take AEK 24 minutes to fashion a shot on goal, and it was the lively Mantalos who fired narrowly wide after a typical surge forward.
That proved an ominous sign though, and two minutes later and AEK got the breakthrough. Mantalos skipped past a challenge on the edge of the penalty area, and surged into the box before turning inside to fire a measured, low shot past Pigliacelli.
The Double-Headed Eagles almost made it 2-0 on the half hour mark when a well-drilled corner routine ended with Helder sending a piledriver goalwards, only for Pigliacelli to parry the ball away impressively.
After 33 minutes Christian Barbut missed Craiova’s best chance of the match. After intercepting a pass in midfield, the visiting forward had a clear run on goal but he dragged his shot wastefully wide with only Barkas to beat.
AEK then continued to control proceedings as the half drew to a close, and they had another good chance to double their advantage five minutes before the break. Geraldes played in Nelson Oliveira with a slick reverse pass, but the Portuguese was denied by Pigliacelli’s reflex save.
After half-time the visitors came out looking determined to try and get back in the tie, and they wasted their best chance in the 54th minute when captain Nicusor Banca fired a powerful shot just over the crossbar after when played through on goal.
On 57 minutes, Craiova had a goal chalked off for offside when Barbut crossed for Roman to score from close range.
AEK began to look a little ragged as the half wore on and a lapse in concentration same them caught cold from a dead ball. Craiova took a quick free-kick down the left flank and Bancu sent over a perfect cross which was met by Ivanov, who beat Barkas with a powerful header to make it 1-1.
From then on the visitors looked most likely to score as AEK looked to simply hold on to their two-goal aggregate advantage.
And Craiova should have moved 2-1 up 10 minutes from full-time when Alexandru Cicaldau picked out substitute Carlos Dos Santos Fortes, but the big striker somehow contrived to fluff his header wide with the goal gaping.
AEK were a shadow of the team from the first half and Craiova continued to pressurize the home goal, but unfortunately for the Romanians they could not find another breakthrough.
AEK: 1 Barkas, 27 Paulinho, 21 Vranjes, 23 Svarnas, 3 Lopes, 8 Simoes, 6 Krsticic, 10 Livaja, 20 Mantalos ©, 12 Geraldes, 5 Oliveira
Craiova: 13 Pigliacelli, 27 Martic, 26 Acka, 6 Kelic, 11 Bancu ©, 10 Cicaldu, 8 Matieu, 21 Ivanov, 22 Barbut, 7 Roman, 28 Michaila