PAOK show improvement during first half of Super League season
It’s certainly been an eventful few months for PAOK Thessaloniki. Following the Europa League disappointment in late summer, PAOK have managed to impress in the Super League, currently occupying joint second in the table. AGONAsport takes a look at how the Aspromavri have warmed into the season.
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Looking to build off their Greek Cup success in the 2016/2017 campaign, PAOK started the season as favourites along with AEK and reigning champions Olympiacos. Unfortunately for the club’s fans, things didn’t go to plan early on. PAOK were dealt a huge shock when being knocked out of the Europa League playoffs by Swedish minnows Ostersunds, before their first Super League match saw the team play out an unimpressive 0:0 draw against Levadiakos.
Poor away form
PAOK’s shaky form continued into the autumn. While the Thessaloniki club were comfortably winning home matches, it was a different story on the road. A match which stands out is the 1:1 draw against AEL Larissa. Leo Matos handed PAOK a first half lead, the visitors comfortably controlled proceedings in the second 45, but a late red card to Efthimis Koulouris turned the match on its head. In the end, AEL grabbed a last gasp equaliser, punishing PAOK for their profligacy in front of goal. That particular game summed up PAOK’s dismal performances away from the intimidating Toumba Stadium.
At this moment in time, PAOK have only dropped two defeats in 15 Super League fixtures, one less than leaders Olympiacos. However, those losses came in the season’s most important games to date. In Piraeus, PAOK had plenty of opportunities to score against Olympiacos, but a horrible error from defender Carlos Zambrano (who is now surplus to requirements in Thessaloniki) cost the match. At the Olympic Stadium, PAOK then dropped a 1:0 defeat to AEK in a bad-tempered affair.
Some were beginning to doubt new head coach Razvan Lucescu, who had previously managed Xanthi in Greece. Nevertheless, as the season drew closer to the halfway mark, PAOK gradually got up to speed. Despite being forced to play the first six home matches in front of an empty stadium, PAOK have won all seven games at the Toumba Stadium. The Aspromavri are practically unbeatable in Thessaloniki, comfortably seeing off all those who stray upon their territory. Fans were allowed to attend the important match with Panathinaikos, a game which PAOK simply dominated. Playing some sparkling football along the way, PAOK destroyed a poor Greens side, registering four goals. Midfield mavrick Dimitris Pelkas was the key to success, scoring two stunning goals in the fixture.
Improvement on the road
PAOK’s away performances have improved too. In the final two road matches before the Christmas break, the team thrashed Xanthi 3:0 and defeated lowly Platanias 1:0 in Chania. Yes, a victory against Platanias isn’t worth writing home about, but Xanthi are traditionally strong at their stadium. Coupled with their triumphs at the Toumba, PAOK find themselves in joint second place with AEK, just the single point behind Olympiacos in the standings. Given how they began the season, it shows what a superb job Lucescu has done to slowly get the best out of a talented group.
New Greek core
Lucescu has tinkered with the squad over the course of the season, blooding more Greeks into the team. Notably, 28-year old goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis has replaced Argentinian Rodrigo Rey between the sticks, putting in showings which even earned him a new contract with the team. In front of him, club veteran Stelios Malezas has slotted into defence, proving to be a reliable figure. Attacking midfielder Dimitris Pelkas has deservedly nailed down a permanent spot in the team, and both forwards Dimitris Liminios and Efthimis Koulouris have been given chances to show what they’re capable of.
Lucescu finds the right formula
It took time for Lucescu to find his optimal roster, but he seems to have created a system which is working with great effect. The statistics prove that Lucescu’s methods are wielding results, especially when looking at the goal difference. PAOK have found the net on 24 separate occasions, conceding only seven goals at the other end - a Super League best. Defensively, PAOK have looked solid, managing to keep nine clean sheets.
Going forward, PAOK boast impressive firepower. Lucescu has put together a fearsome attacking line of Dimitris Pelkas, Omar El-Kaddouri and Aleksandar Prijovic, players who have enough quality to frighten any Greek defence. When Prijovic has been forced out because of injury, Koulouris has substituted him to good effect. Behind them, a creative midfield featuring ex-Zenit Saint Petersburg players Robert Mak and Mauricio has offered real threat. Vieirinha started the season mainly on the wing, but he recently switched to the right-back position.
Looking into 2018, PAOK have to be taken seriously in the title race. They have some tasty home fixtures ahead too, in particular games against arch rivals Olympiacos and AEK at the formidable Toumba Stadium. If PAOK can find stability, fix the away form and continue to keep winning in Thessaloniki, it will be difficult to stop them.