UEFA Champions League 2018 Qualifying

Celtic Park, Glasgow

8th August 2018

Celtic Glasgow v AEK Athens

Like Athens, Glasgow is a city of many football clubs but it’s the two giants who hold sway.   For Olympiakos and Panathinaikos see great rivals Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.  Things though are a little bit more complicated in Athens with the presence of AEK Athens the current Greek Superleague champions.

The last time AEK won the Greek title back in 1994, AEK had come to the west coast of Scotland to play against Celtic’s cross-town rivals Rangers.  Ibrox Stadium hosted an AEK who were led at that time by the legendary Greek striker Dimitris Saravakos.

Saravakos (better known for his time with Panathinaikos) had that summer led Greece at USA ’94 in what turned out to be an unsuccessful tournament for the Greek national team.   Hosting the first leg at the historic Nikos Goumas Stadium, Saravakos opened the scoring with a typical superb strike on 44 minutes. The same player doubled AEK’s lead in the second half when pouncing upon his own rebound.   AEK eventually defeated a strong Rangers team 3-0 over the two legs in a convincing display and a strong track record against Scottish sides has continued over the years.

Matches against other Scottish teams

Edinburgh side Hibernian were defeated in 2001 by 4-3 while Hearts were disposed of in the Champions League qualifiers 5-1 over two legs in 2006.  A recent UEFA Cup game against Dundee United was a closer affair with the Greeks winning 2-1 but AEK still have a 100% record against Scottish teams going into the match against Celtic.

These days there is no Saravakos in the AEK squad and the club no longer plays at the atmospheric Nea Filadelfia Nikos Goumas Stadium.  With the Olympic Games being held in Athens during 2004, Giannis Granitsas then president of AEK decided to demolish the stadium in June 2003 claiming that the stadium was too old.  Another claim was that the ground had been structurally damaged by the 1999 Athens earthquake that killed 140 people.

The club’s initial plan was to build a modern arena on the same northwestern Athens site; a stadium development that would mirror that of Olympiakos who had developed its ground and saw it used for the 2004 Olympic football tournament. But the ambitious plan of AEK was halted after various objections were raised by local residents and the looming of the Greek financial crisis.

As of the summer of 2017 work has commenced on the new 33,000 capacity Agia Sophia Stadium to be used by AEK.

At a cost of €80m and located in Nea Filadelfia a northwestern suburb of Athens, the stadium is being built at exactly the same location where the legendary home ground of Nikos Goumas Stadium was situated.

With the period 2008-2013 known to AEK Athens fans as the ‘dark years’ the club now finds itself back on the big stage of European football.  As recently as 2014 they were ranked as an amateur club and forced to play in the lower leagues for the 2013-14 season; effectively starting from scratch as a football club again.  But soon after the financial model of the club changed improvements have been forthcoming on and off the field of play.

Last season saw the club qualify for the UEFA Europa League group stages which were negotiated undefeated despite AC Milan being in the same group.  The Greek Super League title meanwhile was won for the 12th time after AEK beat Levadiakos 2-0 in front of 65,000 fans at the Olympic Stadium.

AEK produced a competent defensive performance in Glasgow coming away from Scotland with a 1-1 despite being down to 10 men for the last 30 minutes of the game.  Even with dominance and ball possession, Celtic will have to score in the second leg of the Champions League qualifier.

The home side had taken the lead via Callum McGregor when he smashed in a 17th-minute opener from a very tight angle, but the Greeks drew level before the break through Viktor Klonaridis’ away goal after a defensive misunderstanding.

It was Konstantinos Galanopoulos who had been dismissed after receiving two bookings in only seven second-half minutes.

In truth, the Greek champions spent most of the first-half repelling wave after wave of attack from a home side who looked hungry for a sizeable lead.   Kieran Tierney, in particular, had terrorised right-back Michalis Bakakis down the Celtic left serving to give the Greeks some indication of his willingness to run and cross the ball into the danger area.

But in the end, it was the perfect defensive display from an AEK side who will fancy their chances in the baking heat of Greece.  During the second half the intensity of Celtic’s forward play dropped off and at times the Greeks looked dangerous on the counteract via Livaja despite the disadvantage of being down a man.

The home fans in Celtic Park had raised a cheeky banner towards UEFA just before kick-off but for a team who have Champions League ambitions wins against Greek champions AEK are simply a necessary fact of life in the modern qualification format.

With two legs to negotiate in each round this result serves as a reminder that if Celtic are serious about being Champions League regulars, they need to be more convincing away from home.  Clubs have to earn a right to qualify particularly from a league like the Scottish Premier League which has a relatively middle ranked overall coefficient.

The home draw on paper looks to have put the ball firmly in the hands of the Greeks in terms of progress but goals in Athens may still see the Scots through to the crunch playoff.

Celtic: 1: Gordon, 23: Lustig (Sinclair), 4: Hendry, 35: Ajer, 63: Tierney, 8: Brown, 49: Forrest, 42: McGregor, 21: Ntcham, 18: Rogic (Griffiths), 22: Edouard

AEK: 1: Barkas, 2: Bakakis, 4: Oikonomou, 5: Lampropoulos, 3: Oliveira Lopes, 25: Galanoppulos, 8: Gomes Simoes, 14: Balasetas (Dos Santos), 17: Klonaridis (Brito), 23: Hult, 10: Livaja (Ponce)

Referee: Luca Banti
Attendance: 54,370