AEK: 5 Things We Should Know
Celtic's 3-1 aggregate victory over Rosenborg in Qualifying Round 2, means that we face Greek champions AEK in the next stage of the quest for Champions League Group Stage qualification.
Against Rosenborg a strong home performance was enough to see us through the tie, after being able to see out a 0-0 draw in the 2nd leg in Trondheim. AEK Athens will no doubt provide a sterner test in this round, but it's fair to say that we don't know a great deal about the Greek league winners and the challenge that faces us at Celtic Park on Wednesday.
We have been in touch with Greek football writer Ilias Kallonas, to provide us with some insight into the AEK Athens squad, their style of play, danger men and strengths & weaknesses. We also find out how this tie is viewed in Greece and who are seen as the favourites.
AEK won the Greek Superleague for the first time in 24 years last sesaon. Led by Manolo Jimenez, who has since departed for Las Palmas in Spain, the Yellow-Blacks were reliant on a strong defence. In 30 league matches, they conceded only 12 goals and while they were the lowest scorers in the top 3, their strength at the back ultimately won them the title.
What is the AEK style of play and how they are likely to approach the tie against Celtic?
"AEK won the championship due to their defensive capability (last season), this year under Marinos Ouzounidis they are trying to be more expansive. They are a possession-based team but I think against Celtic they will try to play on the counter attack - keep a clean sheet and score on the break through the dangerous Victor Klonaridis, Tasos Bakasetas and Marko Livaja." Ilias Kallonas, Sport 24.
What formation do AEK usually play and how do you expect them to line up against Celtic?
"Last season, in Europe, Jimenez usually used 3-5-2. That's why AEK remained unbeaten in this season's UEFA Europa League (2 wins, 8 draws). It was a very good defensive team. This year, Marinos Ouzounidis, as we saw at the game against Galatasaray, preferred 4-2-3-1. I believe that Ouzounidis will use the same formation and line up against Celtic as he do against Galatasaray.
Barkas (GK), Bakakis (RB), Oikonomou (CB), Labropoulos (CB), Helder Lopez (LB), Simoes (DMF), Galanopoulos (CMF), Bakasetas (RW), Mantalos (LW), Klonaridis (SS), Livaja (CF)."
That strong defensive base, however, may not prove to be so resilient this season. We asked Ilias about the potential weaknesses that Celtic might be able to exploit in the AEK team and the answer was a little surprising. It seems central defence may be a problematic area for both teams in this tie and we aren't the only ones with teething problems.
What are the weaknesses Celtic can exploit in the AEK team?
"Dmitro Chygrynskiy (injured) and Ognjen Vranjes (transfered to Anderlecht), were the two starting centre backs last year, which leaves a huge question mark in this position. Oikonomou and Labropoulos are good players, but haven't played a lot together and maybe will have problems against the dangerous strikers of Celtic." according to Ilias.
"AEK is also really weak at set pieces. They conceded two goals from Galatasaray from set pieces. They not a very "tall" team. That's why Ouzounidis thinks that it is a good idea to use Alef (1.86 cm) as a Central Midfielder and not Galanopoulos (1.72 cm)."
Who are the danger men Celtic have to be aware from AEK?
"Andre Simoes, who plays as defensive midfielder is very important for AEK. If Celtic put pressure on him and don't let him "run", then they will have a big advantage. Also, Petros Mantalos and Marko Livaja are very important players for AEK, because they help a lot, create chances and score goals. From Livaja, you are expecting the "unexpected" with his game. Mantalos is very good at making key passes and dangerous from set pieces." (See Mantalos free-kick v. Galatasaray above for confirmation!)
How is this tie against Celtic viewed in Greece?
"They are excited because Celtic is a big and historic team. But, definitely, they would have preferred teams like Ludogorets or Legia Warsaw. They believe that Moussa Dembele (if he plays), Odsonne Édouard, Scott Sinclair are very dangerous players who could make the difference. They think it will be a tough tie. 50-50. The first game at Celtic Park will be very important for the two teams. Of course AEK has good record against Scottish teams (6 wins, 1 draw, 1 defeat) and 4/4 qualifications, but Celtic is better than the others."
With four qualifying rounds, this is clearly the most difficult route to the Group Stages that Celtic have ever faced. We have seen in the other ties that seeded sides such as Ludogorets and Legia Warsaw have already succumb to the demands of qualification.
With the hostile heat of Athens to come in the 2nd leg, it'll be vitally important to take a lead to Greece. There's every chance that this tie will be as difficult as the play-off that lies ahead. Celtic Park will need all the noise, colour and fervour of the classic European nights on Wednesday.
All to play for at Paradise on the road to the Champions League.