2002 could be a year to remember for AEK Athens. We explain why in our latest feature assessing the contenders for the UEFA Cup.
Each day until 31 December uefa.com will assess the fortunes of a UEFA Cup participant. Today we look at AEK Athens.
2002 could be a year to remember for AEK Athens. Not only are they currently leading the Ethniki Katigoria by five points from great rivals Olympiakos Piraeus FC with just under half the Hellenic National League played, but they have also progressed to the fourth round of the UEFA Cup, which takes place next February.
One step further
Having reached the fourth round of the competition last season, where they lost against FC Barcelona, new coach Fernando M. Costa Santos has achieved one of his first aims when he joined the Athens club last summer - to keep the club in Europe beyond the New Year.
After finishing last season a disappointing third in the league behind champions Olympiakos and Panathinaikos FC, Santos's first task was to strengthen the squad for a push for the title and a lucrative entry into next season's UEFA Champions League, hence the summer arrival from CR Flamengo of Paraguayan defender Carlos Gamarra to shore up what had previously been a porous defence. And with just seven league goals conceded before the winter break - by far and away the best defensive record - the signing has proved a major success.
Sticking to his favoured 4-4-2 system that served him so well during his three years at FC Porto and relying on the experience of national and club captain Theodoros Zagorakis and the goals and creativity of Vassilios Tsartas, AEK have surprised many with their progress in Europe this season.
In the first qualifying round of the competition in August, AEK easily overcame Nationaldivision side CS Grevenmacher 8-0 over two legs, with both crowd favourite Themistoklis Nikolaidis and his strike partner Sotirios Konstantinidis notching up two goals apiece.
Having qualified for the UEFA Cup, their first round opponents in September were Scottish Premier League team Hibernian FC, a side not to be underestimated, as shown by their third-place finish to the 2000/01 Scottish league season. However, a 2-0 first leg win at the Nikos Goumas stadium proved absolutely vital to AEK's continued progression beyond the first round and yet again it was Tsartas and Nikolaidis who scored the teams goals. In the return leg at Easter Road stadium, Edinburgh, Santos and his team were taken to extra-time, before that man Tsartas again popped up with two crucial away goals in 12 minutes that put AEK through 4-3 on aggregate.
October brought the second round and Croatian opposition in the form of NK Osijek, beaten 2-1 in Osijek in the first leg and 3-2 at home in the return. Even skipper Zagorakis managed to get on the scoresheet with Nikolaidis, Tsartas, Konstantinidis and Vasilios Lakis contributing the other strikes in an excellent all-round team performance.
Perhaps overconfidence affected AEK in their final tie before the winter break, against A PFG side PFC Litex Lovech in the third round of the competition. After just 24 minutes of the first leg in Greece, Santos would have been delighted with how his team were playing and the match appeared over as a contest, with the visitors 3-0 down thanks to goals from Tsartas, Zagorakis and Konstantinidis. With 20 minutes of the first leg to go though,
the score was 3-2 and AEK's defensive frailties had been shown up, a worry for their fourth round clash with Serie A giants Internazionale FC. An early Gamarra goal in Lovech settled the team's nerve and meant a plumb tie next February for the club.
Having suffered just two defeats in all competitions so far this season, AEK can look forward to 2002 with confidence. A possible domestic double is still on the cards, but the team's priority must surely be a first league title in eight years. Unlike city rivals Panathinaikos, European success appears not to have diminished the club's domestic form and with Santos's useful experience of European club football with Porto, there still remains the chance of an upset when Internazionale visit the Greek capital in two months' time.