It has most definitely been a long trek to the summit for AEK Athens. Twenty four years in fact. Twenty four years since their last first division championship, during which time the team has gone through so very much. Back in 2013 especially, when AEK were freefalling all the way down to the third division, being Superleague champions again wasn’t just a distant dream, it was a thought that only a person needing urgent psychiatric help could harbor.
But nevertheless, here they are once more. Champions of Greece, with an eye on a league and cup double, since they’re scheduled to meet arch-rivals PAOK in the Greek Cup final and with a bright future ahead of them.
Champions League football of course will be a another steep mountain to climb, since even the champions of Greece now have to face a tough qualifying two-leg match in order to gain access to the group stage of the tournament, but for now AEK can just enjoy their moment in the sun.
And while PAOK fans are busy shouting that “they wuz robbed” (because what Superleague season would be complete without some major courtroom-smelling-corruption-colored scandal), once you get some much needed distance from the smoke and fireworks that is life in the circus of Greek football, it’s hard to argue that AEK are worthy champions.
Playing a much tighter and some might say more cynical type of football than the more flamboyant and gung-ho footballing style displayed by PAOK, AEK were able to mount and sustain their title challenge even without talismanic captain Petros Mandalos, although for many that turned to be a blessing in disguise.
Without their prime schemer and go-to man on the pitch, Manolo Jimenez was forced to spread responsibilities throughout his team, with Lazaros Christodoulopoulos especially answering the Spaniard’s call and serving up the best season of his career. Both as a creator and a finisher, the Greek international proved to be the poster boy for a resurgent AEK side, with Marko Livaja, Andre Simoes, Michalis Bakakis and Dmytro Chygrynskiy also playing starring roles for the Athenians.
The role of Manolo Jimenez also needs to be highlighted. Coming back from the managerial wilderness after a two-year break in his career, many saw the 54-year-old as a stop-gap, as a man to simply guide AEK through the rest of the season after the hugely underwhelming Jose Morais was sent packing in the early weeks of 2017. A caretaker if you will, the right person to spruce up the place before handing over the reins to a younger, hungrier manager.
Jimenez however, had other ideas. Understandably seeing his second stint at the AEK helm as a chance to re-ignite his career, the Spaniard swiftly moved to batten-down-the-hatches mode and concentrated on delivering a team of individuals that could react to his passionate take on football management, full of us-against-them bravado and possession football intricacies.
It all creates a strong backbone, a tough sporting structure that could possibly herald a new golden age for AEK. With Dimitris Melissanidis successfully forcing through the red tape and the not insignificant obstacle of Nea Filadelfia mayor Aris Vasilopoulos, AEK are now seeing that another major step in capturing glories of their past is now edging closer to being realized: the “rebirth” of their Nea Filadelfia stadium. Previously known as the Nikos Goumas stadium (up until its demolition in 2003), the brand new AEK home ground being built on the same site will be called “Agia Sofia” and is understandably being presented as a building that will benefit the entire area, and old-school Athenian neighborhood that has historically been closely connected with AEK.
While still in the earlier stages of construction, the “Agia Sofia” stadium stands as a perfect symbol of where AEK are at the moment: finally on the right track, with a healthy and sustainable plan on which to build upon.
What makes their entire championship triumph even sweeter, is that they are the first team in years to finally knock Olympiakos of their perch, beating the overlords of Greek football convincingly three times in both league and cup. The Piraeus side have always been the team to beat, but in the past AEK, PAOK and Panathinaikos have all come up short in their attempts to deliver the knock out blow. This time round the team that Manolo Jimenez built were in no mood to let another opportunity slip and made sure that by beating the perennial champions of Greece, they were sending a message to the rest of the division, but most of all to themselves and their fans. The message was simple: the bad times were finished, the wait for another championship was finally over.
It will be interesting to see how the AEK story develops form here on in. With player-of-the-season Lazaros Christodoulopoulos already butting heads with Dimitris Melissanidis over a new contract extension (and Olympiakos lurking if you believe the transfer rumors), terrace favorites Sergio Araujo and Marko Livaja posing difficult transfer conundrums since both are on loan from Spanish side Las Palmas and the team needing plenty of additions if they are to successfully defend their championship win and rise to the challenge of the Champions League, there’s no doubt that AEK are dealing with a series of serious issues, before the season is even officially over.
However, once again, those can wait for now. It’s not everyday that you get to lift a 24 year old “curse” that has kept you away from the summit of Greek football and be crowned champions once again. For many younger fans of the Athenian side, the term “league champions” has never been one that they could actively associate with their favorite team. It’s clearly a welcome and triumphant change.
On to the cup final.