Mantalos and Livaja lead AEK to victory in Romania
UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE - 3rd QUALIFYING ROUND (1st LEG)
AEK kicked off their quest for a place in the Europa League with a priceless 2-0 away win over Universitatea Craiova on Thursday to claim the advantage in their third qualifying round round tie.
Captain Petros Mantalos’ header on the hour mark and a strike from man-of-the-match Marko Livaja proved the difference between the two sides on the night and allowed Miguel Cardoso’s Kitrinomavri to claim a vital win at the Ion Oblemenco stadium over their Romanian opponents.
AEK produced a classic away performance, containing the home side who failed to create much in the way of clear scoring chances, and hitting them where it hurts with the away goals after half-time.
The win makes AEK’s task to finish the job at the Olympic Stadium in Athens next week much easier and book a playoff clash against the winners of this tie will face either Sparta Prague or Trabzonspor (match ended 2:2 draw in Prague).
AEK headed into this match keen to make amends for the dismal 2018/2019 UEFA Champions League campaign, which saw the Athens club post six loses out of six.
Perhaps memories of those defeats were still lingering, as the Kitrinomavri began cautiously against their tricky Romanian opponents, who disposed of Hungarian side Honved in the previous round.
Indeed, chances were few and far between for both sides in a fairly low-key first half with the home side enjoying more of the possession but without threatening AEK goalkeeper Vasilis Barkas significantly.
AEK were dealt a blow just before half-time when Viktor Klonaridis, who had looked lively in patches, limped off to be replaced by Livaja.
AEK’s Bosnian defender Ognjen Vranješ had the visitors’ best chance of the half, heading wide from a corner just before the break.
After half-time the onus was still with the home team to try and get a goal to put pressure on AEK and bring the Greek side out of their content defensive shell, which they did, albeit in sporadic patches.
But it was a mistake in midfield by Craiova which gifted AEK possession after 60 minutes and allowed the visitors to create their vital opening. Andre Simoes picked up possession and slipped a pass to Geraldes, whose picked out the run of Livaja down the right flank.
The Croatian forward then dinked over a perfect cross for the unmarked Mantalos to send a brilliantly-measured looping header over Craiova’s hapless Italian goalkeeper Mirko Pigliacelli, who had no chance to stop it.
AEK missed a golden chance to doubled their advantage after 75 minutes following a slick passing move again down the right flank. Livaja was again involved, releasing the overlapping Paulinho, whose low cross was just too strong for debutant substitute Nélson Oliveira sliding in.
Barkas, who was inactive for long spells against a toothless-looking Craiova attack, was finally called in to action with seven minutes left as the home side pushed for an equaliser. The AEK shot stopper was equal to the task, producing a fine save to deny Carlos Fortes.
Things then got even better for AEK when the visitors went straight down the other end to score a second. Livaja was the man on target, hitting an unstoppable low shot past Pigliaceli from Paulinho’s through ball.
Craiova: 13 Pigliacelli (GK), 3 Briceag, 5 Vătăjelu, 6 Kelić, 7 Roman, 8 Mateiu, 10 Cicâldău, 11 Bancu ©, 21 Ivanov, 22 Bărbuț, 26 Acka
AEK: 1 Barkas (GK), 7 Verde, 8 André Simões, 12 Francisco Geraldes, 17 Klonaridis, 20 Mantalos ©, 21 Vranješ, 22 Simão, 23 Hult, 24 Svarnas, 27 Paulinho