AEK’S Elite Rundown
AGONAsport’s AEK contributor, Greg Gavalas, talks about AEK’s run in this year’s UEFA Champions League and the current roster the club houses.
It has taken 12 years… A fair bit of domestic drama, success, and boil over which includes relegation to the third division, followed by an incredible journey back to the Super League, which accumulated in winning the domestic Championship for the first time since 1994, and after two qualifying wins over Celtic FC and Vidi FC, AEK are back in the UEFA Champions League for the first time since 2006/07.
AEK have been drawn with Bayern Munich of Germany, Benfica of Portugal who eliminated PAOK in Toumba after a 1-1 draw in Lisbon, and the historic Ajax Amsterdam of Holland, who are no strangers to Greek opposition over the last 47 years at least.
It is not a bad draw for AEK, whilst Bayern Munich are the clear favorites in the group, Benfica and Ajax are teams AEK can get points from and fight for a 2ND or more realistically, 3rd position which would mean they continue to the UEFA Europa League.
Whilst the draw has some hope for AEK, I don’t think AEK have capitalized on the opportunity this season brings them, by that I mean transfers and the squad in general. In a previous blog, we looked at some of the core players AEK lost and that needed replacing.
Like myself, I am sure some AEK fans cannot help but wonder what the season winning squad would have done if still together, but the reality is AEK need to rebuild. We have seen positives and opportunities that still need to be filled if AEK want to have success in Europe and/or Greece.
Let’s look at the positives first
Goalkeeper, Vasilis Barkas – The Dutch born Greek goalkeeper had some injury issues last season but since coming back, has shown outstanding form. His form this season so far has been a highlight for AEK and he made some very impressive saves in the qualifiers against Celtic and Vidi. He will play a big part in the Champions League games for AEK and we know he will be tested. It is only a matter of time before he is Greece’s number one keeper.
Midfielder, Giannis Gianniotas – Gianniotas was signed by AEK after being released by Olympiacos following multiple loan spells, his most recent spell with Spanish club Real Valladolid. It is a good pick up for AEK who were in need of a fast winger following the departure of Lazaros Christodoulopoulos. Gianniotas can cause any defense problems with his quick dribbling, nonstop running, and scoring abilities. AEK needed this instead of forcing players like Petros Mantalos and Tasos Bakasetas on the wing.
Forward, Ezequiel Ponce – One of four loaned players to AEK, Ponce comes from Roma. However the Argentine has spent the last two seasons in Spain and France playing for Granada and last season with Lille. At just 21, Ponce has a big future ahead of him but he needs to make his mark. There is no bigger stage than the Champions League to do so and he will likely have that chance with AEK’s main forward this season, Marko Livaja, suspended for no less than 3 matches following a childish red card after the final whistle against Vidi. Ponce has opened his scoring account in the league and if AEK do not get another striker much depends on him (free agents still eligible to be signed).
Midfielder, Alef – On loan from Portuguese club Braga and just 23 years of age, Alef has shown good maturity on the field and in the big qualifying games as well. His passing has been good and his height allows him to win many headers. Alongside Andre Simoes and Kostas Galanopoulos, expect to see much of Alef in the Super League and Champions League.
Key runners and also positives for AEK
Captain, Petros Mantalos, will be the key to AEK’s success this season. AEK need Mantalos to go injury free as long as possible as the number 10’s class will be needed at the big stage. A deadline day offer of €10 million euros from English club West Bromwich speaks for itself.
Michalis Bakakis will be a key figure in the backline at right back as will Kostas Lambropoulos in the heart of defense, followed by Simoes and Galanopoulos in the midfield. The pair of midfielders hold a very important key for AEK’s season.
Now at the opportunities for success or failure
Defender Marios Oikonomou – On loan from Bologna, Oikonomou brings a wealth of Serie A experience, however his form in the last two seasons has been anything but spectacular. Until this season, Oikonomou’s form really slumped, from a starter in Serie A and call ups to the national team, the 25-year-old found himself on the bench at Serie B club Bari and off the national team (until Skibbe’s most recent call up).
Oikonomou’s form at AEK has thankfully been good especially in both matches against Celtic, but showed some slips in the return game against Vidi in Athens. If he can keep his early form up, he will be very helpful for AEK, otherwise we do not want to see poor form in the Champions League.
Forward, Christos Almpanis – Signed from Apollon Smyrni after a great season that was, Almpanis picked up an injury after a small appearance versus Celtic. In that short time, he looked good and provided he remains injury free, he could be a big help to AEK’s attacking line this season. Only 23, Almpanis also has an opportunity to make a big mark in his career and make the striker position his.
Forward/Winger - Viktor Klonaridis – Without sugar coating it too much, Klonaridis was horrible last season, however under coach Marios Ouzounidis, Klonaridis is simply another player. He scored a critical goal in Scotland and has looked good since then, but like Oikonomou, has shown some signs of the lagging player he can be. It is a real toss of the coin with the Belgian/Greek, however when coached by Ouzounidis he generally plays well.
Defender, Dmytro Chygrynskiy – One word, injuries. The Ukrainian hard man can be a valuable figure, with a pairing of Lambropoulos and Dmytro, AEK’s defense can be very strong but injuries do come for the 31-year-old so that will play a role this season.
Winger, Lucas Boye – On loan from Torino, the Argentine winger is somewhat of an unknown quantity at the moment. Boye showed very promising signs in the friendly in Athens with Galatasaray, but sustained an injury just before the first game away to Celtic when he was expected to start. Boye has since not played a minute of football but should be back soon. He is young, fast, and very skillful, but like a few others, needs to be injury free.
As we can see, there is a core that will be important and some players that could make a big difference in the squad. The main concern for me is the striker’s position. With August over, AEK did not buy a recognized striker and it is now up until September 14th to see if AEK can grab a valuable free agent.
Livaja is a good player, but there are two big concerns I have with him. Firstly, he is not an out and out striker and we have seen that with his shots at goal. Secondly, his discipline is horrible. A red card AFTER the game with Vidi, AFTER AEK had finished the job means he is suspended for 3 games, thus he cannot play in the first three group stage matches. This will be a big blow for AEK who are already short staffed in the striker’s position.
Without a recognized striker, I think it will be hard for AEK to climb some rather big mountains considering we are talking about the Champions League, the grandest stage of them all. However, the Enosis have faced big mountains before and climbed them.
The figures of Gianniotas, Almpanis, Boye, and Ponce could play a surprising role with the other core players, which will hopefully see some magical moments for AEK as they prepare their return to the big time.
The Ajax games could be the most important in the group stages. Ajax are not the team of the old and a good AEK can take them. These matches will also be important for Greece’s coefficient standings with Holland, who currently sit in 11th place. AEK’s first game is in Amsterdam and if AEK can salvage a point, and follow it with a win against Benfica in Athens on matchday two, anything can happen. The first two matches will tell much of AEK’s story in this year’s UEFA Champions League group stages.