Needing to overturn a one-goal deficit to prolong their Champions League adventure, AEK Athens welcome Royal Antwerp to the Agia Sophia Stadium for the second leg of their qualifying playoff tie on Wednesday.
The Belgian visitors ran out 1-0 winners in front of their own supporters last week, despite seeing out the final 40 minutes of that encounter with 10 men.
Possibly still nursing a European hangover from their astonishing third-round success over Dinamo Zagreb – where Croatian defensive stalwart Domagoj Vida came up with the crucial contribution against his old club – AEK Athens could not find a way past the 10 men of Antwerp last week.
Former Tottenham Hotspur striker Vincent Janssen drew first blood for the Belgian outfit with 16 minutes on the clock, and despite losing left-back Jelle Bataille to a straight red card just six minutes into the second half, Antwerp successfully shut up shop.
Despite huffing and puffing for almost the entirety of the second half, AEK Athens – who had 64% of the ball and fired 23 attempts on goal – clearly forgot to bring their shooting boots with them to Belgium, as only four of their shots found the target, and it was a similar story in the weekend’s Greek Super League opener.
Indeed, the reigning champions were held to a 1-1 draw by Panserraikos, who opened the scoring in the first minute through Kosta Aleksic before Mijat Gacinovic levelled deep into the second half for Matias Almeyda’s men, who demonstrated another total lack of ruthlessness on the day.
This time around, the Double-Headed Eagle ended the game with a staggering 82% possession, but only eight of their 36 shots tested opposing goalkeeper Adrian Chovan, and such profligacy could prove very costly indeed on the biggest continental stage.
Bataille’s 51st-minute sending-off was not in the script for Royal Antwerp during their third Champions League match, but the team led by Mark van Bommel – a former European Cup winner with Barcelona – are now just 90 minutes away from making history.
Prior to the 2023-24 preliminary rounds, Antwerp had only ever competed in two top-level continental matches – suffering an 8-1 aggregate obliteration at the hands of Real Madrid in the 1957-58 European Cup – and since then, a handful of Europa League group-stage showings is all that the Reds have had to shout about.
However, Van Bommel’s team were granted a weekend off from Jupiler Pro League action as they gear up for a daunting trip to Athens, but while the Great Old have become renowned for staunch defensive displays on their own patch, it has been a different story on the road.
Indeed, Antwerp have failed to win any of their last four competitive fixtures away from home – losing twice and drawing twice in that underwhelming sequence – prior to which they had strung together a five-game winning streak on rival turf with five clean sheets in tow.
Wednesday’s crunch clash will mark just Antwerp’s second competitive fixture on Greek soil, having suffered a 2-1 loss to Olympiacos in the 2021-22 Europa League group stage, during which Bataille fell foul of the rulebook once again as he was sent off late on.
AEK Athens Champions League form:
AEK Athens form (all competitions):
Royal Antwerp Champions League form:
Royal Antwerp form (all competitions):
We say: AEK Athens 1-1 Royal Antwerp (Antwerp win 2-1 on aggregate)
Converting chances into goals has not been AEK Athens’ forte over the past week, and the injury to Garcia will do the wasteful hosts no favours on the offensive front either.
While Almeyda’s men are unlikely to be kept at bay throughout the entire 90 minutes, especially given Antwerp’s mediocre results on the road, the Belgian champions can capitalise on any weekend fatigue from the Double-Headed Eagle to seal a first-ever group-stage berth.