AEK’s golden Champion League opportunity

AEK’s golden Champion League opportunity

AGONAsport’s AEK blogger, Greg Gavalas, talks about AEK’s first leg match against Celtic and the golden opportunity that lies ahead for the Enosis to return to the Champions League group stages.

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Greek Champions, AEK Athens, face the opportunity they have been waiting for many years, the chance to return to the UEFA Champions League group stages for the first time since 2006/07 season. That campaign was highlighted with the famous 1-0 win over AC Milan at the Olympic Stadium (OAKA).

Since then, AEK’s biggest achievements of late on the European stage have come in the UEFA Europa League, most recently when AEK made it to the last 32 last season, and unrightfully bowed out to Dynamo Kiev (lost on away goals). AEK also reached the last 32 of the 2007/08 UEFA Cup (now Europa League).

This week, AEK face another big chapter and chance in their history, the return leg against Scottish Champions, Celtic.

The first leg is now done and dusted, a 1-1 draw in Glasgow is a great result for AEK who can get away with a 0-0 draw in Athens and progress to the playoffs (final qualifying round). However, Celtic will not be an easy opponent and AEK cannot afford to sit back and hold out. That being said, that is not AEK’s nor Marinos Ouzounidis’ playing style. 

One has to wonder what this chance could have looked like had AEK not lost their core players from last season’s team that helped win the club’s 12th domestic championship. These names are big and heavy, ranging from defense to offence, so it means the current roster is a mix of new and established players.

AEK did not play many friendly games this offseason and in fact, after 3 games without a goal, there was reason to worry. However, AEK looked good at the OAKA against Turkish outfit Galatasaray, where the Kitrinomavri played great football and won 3-2. 

Featuring in that game was the captain, Petros Mantalos, who was out for most of last season due to an ACL injury. With the lack of quality signings in the offseason and loss of players like Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, Mantalos becomes a key piece of the pie even more so this season. He is the key to AEK’s attack, but is getting more injury prone, missing last week’s first leg matchup. He now has a 50-50 chance of being fit for the return leg after initially being ruled out altogether. If he is fit and can play in the middle, AEK’s chances of advancing grow considerably. 

Another big lose is Kostas Galanopoulos. The young Greek midfielder was having a blinding game in Scotland before the official booked him twice which resulted in a red card and suspension for Tuesday’s match. He will be replaced by the Brazilian, Alef, who came on loan from Braga, and put a good showing against Galatasaray.

A positive point from the first game in Scotland was AEK did look good in defense. Vasilis Lambropoulos and new signing, Marios Oikonomou, combined well and to the relief of AEK fans, Oikonomou had his best game in a long time. 

The midfield also looked solid as both Andreas Simoes and Kostas Galanopoulos were certainly strong in the middle, with Helder Lopez proving a constant threat on the wing. 

My only concern lies with AEK’s attack. For some reason, Tasos Bakasetas keeps being played on the wing as he is played for with the national team (a consistent complaint of mine). Bakasetas is a big player with no great speed and was invisible for the most of the first leg. He will really need to step it up in Athens, although I hope he does not start on the wings.

Marko Livaja, one of last season’s key players had a mixed night, some good moments but many give aways, and overall, will need to be better in Greece.

Viktor Klonaridis seems to respond well to Ouzounidis’ coaching as he was one of the best players in last week’s match in Glasgow. The Greek winger was a consistent goal scorer at Panathinaikos under Ouzounidis, yet looked completely out of whack under Manolo Jimenez last season. AEK will need him to continue his relentless running which kept the Celtic defense busy.

The return match has some familiarities with what happened in 1994, the year AEK qualified for their first Champions League group stages. Back then it was another Scottish side, Celtic’s arch rivals, Rangers. AEK won both games and a repeat of the 2-0 win in Athens (a brace from Dimitris Saravakos) would be great on Tuesday. The Enosis house a good record versus Scottish teams, however I think this will be the toughest Scottish assignment to date, given the lack of matches for AEK and the squad strength when compared to last season.

AEK will need to watch Leigh Griffiths, Olivier Ntcham, and fellow Frenchman Odsonne Edouard very closely whist their star striker, Moussa Dembele could be a last-minute inclusion (battling an injury).

If AEK get past this challenge, the opposition for the next round is either Vidi FC from Hungary or Malmo from Sweden. Neither team pose a threat to the Greek champions, giving AEK a golden chance to the return to the Champions League group stages. Let’s hope the job is done with Celtic at the OAKA which will be a giant leap for AEK in their dreams of playing in the UEFA Champions League group stages once again.

By Greg Gavalas
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