The Fall and Rise of AEK Athens

When I was at school, it was a miserable time to be a Celtic supporter. We nearly went bust, Rangers won everything, and I went to a non-denominational school so I was basically surrounded by Rangers fans most of the time.

But every so often, you got a little glimmer of hope. Something to cling to, something to throw back at them. Ultimately that would become the mantra of how our nine in a row was so much better than theirs because during our nine in a row even they were good in Europe and during theirs they were rank rotten.

While sometimes Rangers reached the Champions League group stages and saw humiliation from the likes of Ajax and Juventus, sometimes they didn’t even get that far. There are two names that stand out from those failures that will probably live with me forever. Levski Sofia and AEK Athens.

It was the 1994/95 season. We were rebuilding Celtic Park and rebuilding the team under Tommy Burns after the Fergus McCann takeover, but they were trying to reach the group stages of the Champions League. Fortunately, AEK Athens stood in their way and won 3-0 on aggregate thanks to a 2-0 home win and a 1-0 away win.

Why do I mention this now when it’s 24 years later and most of the current AEK Athens team probably don’t even remember that tie? Well, that was the first of four ties that AEK Athens would play against Scottish opposition.

In 2001/02, they faced Hibernian in the first round of the UEFA Cup. Although they won the home leg 2-0, the away leg also finished 2-0 although they ultimate scored twice extra time and won the tie 4-3 on aggregate.

In 2006/07, they faced Hearts in the third qualifying round of the Champions League, winning 3-0 at home and 2-1 at Tynecastle to reach the group stages and send Hearts into the UEFA Cup.

In 2010/11, they faced Dundee United in the playoff round of the Europa League. Although United earned a 1-1 draw in Athens, the 1-0 defeat at Tannadice meant it was AEK that went through to the group stages.

Four Scottish teams, and every time AEK Athens have come out on top. Celtic will be their fifth Scottish opposition, and hopefully we’ll be the team that breaks this particular pattern.

But AEK have been through a lot since they defeated Dundee United. Financial problems hit them hard in 2012 and they struggled badly in the 2012/13 season, ultimately being relegated to the second tier of Greek football for the first time in their history.

But they didn’t stay there. Rather than attempt to overcome their financial problems as a full time team in the second tier, they chose instead to go part time and voluntarily drop down to the third tier to effectively start over. They won that at the first time of asking, then won the second tier the following season, returning to the top flight where they finished third, then second and ultimately first last season.

Which has, of course, led them to face Celtic.

This will be AEK Athens first competitive match of the season. They’ve played four pre-season friendlies, losing one, drawing two and winning the fourth. Admittedly, that last one was a win over Galatasaray, their toughest opponents to date, but it’s always difficult to gauge anything on pre-season friendlies.

Due to the Greek coefficient, their champions enter at this third qualifying round, so they haven’t even had that to contend with yet. Unlike us of course, this will be out sixth competitive match this season already!

AEK Athens travel to Glasgow without their captain, Petros Mantalos, but then we’ll be without Moussa Dembele so we’re probably even on the missing key players stakes. Fortunately for us, Olivier Ntcham is fit despite a worry at the weekend. Leigh Griffiths returning to fitness gives us options up front, but I think we’d all be surprised if Odsonne Edouard didn’t start up front again in this match.

Jozo Simunovic returns following suspension, and it will be interesting to see if he gets a start ahead of either Jack Hendry or Kristoffer Ajer who did manage to get a clean sheet in Trondheim. Dedryck Boyata isn’t quite ready to go yet, and with a Fulham bit knocked back he looks set to stay with us for a while longer yet. Although the English transfer window shuts on Thursday so who knows what might yet transpire there.

With the draw pairing us with either Malmo or MOL Vidi in the playoff round should we get there, we now know more or less what’s required to reach the Champions League group stages for a third successive year – something we haven’t managed since Gordon Strachan was in charge and even he had the benefit of automatic qualification to the group stages in two of those three!

Of course, should we fail in this round then we also know we’ll face either Spartaks Jumala or FK Suduva. I’m sure most of us remember a time we failed to reach the Champions League group stages but went on to beat Suduva! I’d rather not think about that.

What’s really simple is this. Get past AEK Athens and we’re guaranteed six group matches in Europe. That’s the short term aim – guaranteed European football up until Christmas. The really short term aim will be trying to take a lead to Athens next week, ideally without conceding like we did against Rosenborg.

The way AEK Athens played last season was one of scoring few but conceding few. They apparently like to play on the break too, so we’ll need to be careful we don’t get caught out at the back while we’re pushing forward trying to probe our own way to goal.

The truth is, it might be just hard getting through the AEK Athens defence as it will be trying to get through the traffic in Glasgow thanks to the very awkwardly timed European Championship Cycling Time Trials.

Krys (Twitter @krys1888)

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