Demanding first step for AEK

The Champions League final takes place in Athens next May but not even the most optimistic or die-hard fans of AEK Athens believe their team will be playing in the match on their home Olympic Stadium pitch. But AEK could well bring their fans plenty to cheer about this season as they have a chance to advance from the group stage after being bracketed with AC Milan, Lille and Anderlecht. In its opening group game, AEK meets Milan in Italy tonight. With Milan almost certain to top the quartet, AEK, Lille and Anderlecht will be chasing second place and, at worst, third spot for a consolation UEFA Cup berth. And the Athens club showed by its 5-1 aggregate demolition of Scottish club Heart of Midlothian in the third qualifying round that it is not just along for the ride. For a club that was facing financial extinction two years ago, reaching the Champions League is a big achievement and going any further in the competition would be a welcome bonus. To progress, however, AEK will need to improve on their previous Champions League performances. In the 2003-2004 competition, they went through the group stages scoring just a single goal, while the previous year they managed to draw in each of their six group games. Unbeaten they may have been, but they still failed to go through. This is AEK’s third Champions League campaign in five seasons. AEK has yet to register a victory in 18 games so far. The Athens club’s record reads 10 draws and eight defeats. This year they have a new coach, Spaniard Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, who takes over from Fernando Santos, now at Benfica. The signs against Hearts were promising, although AEK’s early Greek league form this season has been more of a concern. The Athens club has three draws from as many games. Any team with Greece international Traianos Dellas at the heart of the defense should prove hard to break, but in midfield they will miss the steadying influence of Costas Katsouranis who has followed Santos to Portugal. The Brazilian, Emerson, formerly of Middlesbrough and Rangers among others, remains an influential figure and the Serbian Vladan Ivic will ensure some physicality in midfield. They have also recruited young Greek midfielder Panayiotis Lagos from Iraklis as well as Argentinean striker Gustavo Manduca, on loan from their old friends at Benfica. He ought to provide backup to 33-year-old Greece striker Nikos Lyberopoulos in the goal-scoring department. Another Brazilian, Julio Cesar – not to be confused with the international who has joined Olympiakos – also proved against Hearts that he has the kind of pace and flair on the flanks to trouble defenses in Europe, scoring twice in the second leg. (Reuters)