By Graham Hunter at the Riazor
RC Deportivo La Coruña moved themselves to within a point of the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League with a comprehensive win against already-eliminated AEK Athens FC. Goals from Héctor Berenguel, Juan Carlos Valerón and Alberto Luque sealed the win and left AEK anchored at the bottom of Group C without even any chance of UEFA Cup qualification.
Much to prove
Deportivo came into the match with much to prove, still smarting from their record-breaking 8-3 defeat against AS Monaco FC on Matchday 4. Coach Javier Irureta was able to bring back key players who missed the night of embarrassment at the Stade Louis II, using Fran on the left of midfield and winger Víctor Sánchez on the right.
AEK were again missing Dutchman Michel Kreek and lost their captain Mihalis Kasapis to injury before half-time, but had Kofi Amponsah back anchoring their defence following a one-match suspension after his sending off in the defeat to PSV Eindhoven on Matchday 3.
Throughout the game the elegant, confident style of veteran playmaker Fran stood out. While the midfield battle became hurried and hassled, the former Spanish international simply used clever short passes into space and it was his play which imposed the rhythm for the home side. After only six minutes it was his curling cross from the left which gave Víctor a free back-post header which he spurned, hitting the side-netting instead of scoring.
AEK had a tame first half. Their only real threats both stemmed from the work of Vassilios Lakis, whose close control and willingness to run at the Deportivo defence at least caused Irureta's side to retreat. His ninth-minute run past two players left him perfectly placed to set up Yiannis Okkas for a clear shooting chance, but Lakis opted to shoot himself - only to skew the chance wide. Then from Lakis' pacy short pass Vassilios Tsiartas ran on and struck a rising shot which skimmed off the bar.
The Spaniards were controlling the game and duly got their reward. Prior to scoring, full-back Héctor had surprised everyone with a fantastic 30-metre volley which only just edged over the bar and onto the roof of the net. Twenty-two minutes into the first half, however, he arrived at the edge of the box again to smash past Hrisostomos Mihailidis after Fran's cross had eluded Walter Pandiani and bounced off Víctor as he tried to control it.
Deportivo came out for the second half with finishing the game and securing the points evidently on their agenda. And within six minutes they led 2-0. Aldo Duscher won the ball in midfield and Víctor's pass allowed Valerón to run at the Greek defence before unleashing a right-foot shot which Mihailidis could only touch as it sped past him. Headers from Pandiani, from a Héctor cross, and Cesar might easily have made it three before the hour mark.
Luque seals it
AEK spurned their chance to get back in the game when Okkas tried to chip José Molina from close in when a simple low shot appeared more straightforward. Deportivo duly sealed the victory with a third goal when Walter Pandiani unselfishly squared to substitute Luque after a lone run had taken him in on goal.
Deportivo now only trail leaders Monaco on head-to-head record, and a point, or even one-goal defeat, at PSV on Matchday 6 would take them through.