December 14th, 2011: AEK beat Sturm Graz in what would be our last European match in almost five years. Well, we are finally back where we belong! I know we’ll never be a European power house, but its safe to say that we deserve to at least have a presence on the European stage. The atmosphere our supporters create, some of the big teams we’ve managed to beat, it all goes to show that AEK are a worthwhile club to feature in a European competition and after today, we are that much closer to finally being back in the group stages.
Theres still a lot of work to be done but after today, I think I can take a deep breath and relax a bit. The tie is far from over but to head to OAKA on equal footing gives me a lot of reason to be cautiously optimistic. Of course the away goal would have made things that much easier for us too but what makes me happier than the result was the performance the team put in.
We were solid defensively, both on set plays but also when the ball was moving. Most of the chances Saint Etienne managed to muster were far shots which Anestis was able to deal with quite comfortably. When Saint Etienne did manage to get a ball in the box, Chygyrinsky was always there to make sure nothing happened. We were also able to count on Kolovetsios when needed and both Galo and Didac did a great job of getting the ball up the wings.
We held our ground nicely in the midfield too as Simoes and Johansson did all they could to stamp their authority on the match. In fact, pretty much from our net up to midfield was almost always in our control and when Saint Etienne did manage to get forward, we never looked too shaky at all. I have to give a lot of credit to Ketsbaia here for this. During our friendlies we looked okay but it was hard to tell how the team would handle under pressure since we never faced any particularly strong opposition. Today proved though that we’re on the right track and players are starting to understand both each other, and the playing style Ketsbaia wants to see from them.
The only disappointing aspect of our play would have to be our offense. We did manage to create some chances, but our finishing was still letting us down. Having said that, scoring many goals was never the main priority today compared to holding Saint Etienne at bay (which we successfully did), so I’m not too worried. I’m sure we’ll see a much more spirited attack on the return match in front of our supporters.
All said and done it was a very promising return to Europe. Considering we had a few new players on the pitch today as well as a new coach with a very different approach from what we were used to, it has to be said that the team did well for not only their first competitive match of the season, but also the first European game in so long. There would undoubtedly have been some pressure on our players, not least of all because we were playing one of the favourites of the 3rd qualifying round, but they showed little sign of it. In fact, I’d say going into the next game that both teams are 50/50 now with no clear favourite between the two.
As usual, a great display from our supporters on the European stage. Hopefully we’ll see plenty more scenes like these: