Livaja proves critics wrong in career renaissance
Croatian forward Marko Livaja is enjoying a renaissance at AEK Athens, rediscovering his potential to emerge as a crucial figure in the Kitrinomavri’s Super League title run.
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When signing on loan from Las Palmas last summer, Livaja was severely doubted by many, travelling to Athens with an unwanted bad-boy reputation. While Livaja has always been highly rated, the Croat has struggled with a real lack of discipline, flopping at clubs such as Atalanta, Rubin Kazan and Empoli. Nevertheless, under boss Manolo Jimenez, the forward suddenly proved why Italian giants Inter Milan signed him back in 2011.
However, Livaja didn’t get off to a flying start in the Greek capital. Already being closely scrutinized by wary AEK fans, the 24-year old put in tepid performances early in the season, especially against CSKA Moscow in the UEFA Champions League where he simply didn’t look interested. Enosis supporters were ready to write him off, but out of nowhere, Livaja gradually clicked into gear. A big reason behind his upturn in fortunes was Argentine striker Sergio Araujo, who re-joined AEK on loan in September. Having played together in Spain with Las Palmas, the pair boast brilliant mutual-understanding and terrorised Super League defences throughout the entire campaign.
It all changed for Livaja on September 28, 2017. In desperate need for a confidence booster, Livaja took a leading role in the UEFA Europa League home match against Austria Vienna, scoring twice to earn a last-gasp 2:2 draw for AEK. Since then, Livaja improved with every match, displaying his fantastic technical ability with the ball at his feet and even tracking back in defence with commitment.
Let’s fast forward to November, when Livaja managed to bag two hugely important goals in potentially title deciding matches. Firstly, AEK hosted PAOK at the Olympic Stadium, looking to continue leading the Super League standings and defeat a direct contender. Sergio Araujo was sent off in the opening stages, but Livaja handed AEK the lead with 10 players, sliding the ball home from point blank range. PAOK then had two men sent off, allowing AEK to claim a 1:0 victory.
Just 14 days later, Livaja repeated the trick with yet another crucial marker. At the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, AEK found themselves trailing 0:1 to Panathinaikos, but in the dying minutes of stoppage time, Livaja received a clever pass from Astrit Ajdarevic and lashed a deflected effort beyond Greens goalkeeper Odysseas Vlachodimos. Surely a key moment in AEK’s Super League triumph.
Overall, Livaja registered eight Super League goals and five assists in 27 appearances, the best statistics of his fascinating career to date. Let’s take a look at some of Livaja’s achievements from a memorable 2017/2018 season:
- Between the 10th and 13th rounds of the league, Livaja was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) on four consecutive occasions;
- Only Rodrigo Galo and Michalis Bakakis played more minutes than Livaja (1979) in the championship;
- Livaja drew more fouls than any other AEK player - 41;
- Three out of Livaja’s eight goals were against PAOK, Panathinaikos and Panionios, decisive matches in the title race;
- The Croat provided the assist for Petros Mantalos’ winning goal against Olympiacos (3:2) on September 24;
- Livaja dished out more Super League assists than any other AEK player - five.
Livaja’s stunning season with the Enosis persuaded AEK to activate his Las Palmas’ release clause of 1.8 million and sign the Croatian on a permanent deal through to 2021. In an interesting fact, Livaja has become AEK’s most expensive player in a decade, after the Kitrinomavri incredibly did not spend over one million in ten years since 2008.
Despite his success, Livaja is far from the finished project. His discipline let him down at times in the campaign, notably sitting out the Europa League Last 16 second leg against Dynamo Kyiv because of too many yellow cards and lucky to not miss the Greek Cup final after he could have been sent off in a game with Apollon Smyrnis. Still, 1.8 million for a player of his calibre is an unbelievable bargain in this day and age, and new AEK manager Marinos Ouzounidis will be hoping Livaja continues realising his potential in the upcoming campaign, even if partner in crime Araujo has departed.