AEK gets back in the game

It’s taken 22 attempts but AEK finally chalked up their first win in the Champions League against 10-man Lille here on Wednesday night with a 1-0 victory. The Greek side knew that nothing short of victory, however improbable that was given their miserable record, would suffice to keep alive their slim hopes of making it into the next knockout stage. And their task was eased after Efstathios Tavlaridis, Lille’s Greek defender, was dismissed by English referee Stephen Bennett 22 minutes into the game. The former Arsenal back picked up his first booking in the opening minutes for a challenge on veteran striker Nikos Liberopoulos and received a second and fatal yellow card when he brought down AEK’s Finnish midfielder Perparim Hetemaj on the left side of the penalty area. Later in the game, it was Liberopoulos who provided fire up front for AEK. He had a shot blocked by Lille keeper Tony Sylva in the 67th minute but the Greece striker who missed out on his country’s shock Euro 2004 triumph made no mistake seven minutes later. The 31-year-old attacker was the toast of Athens when he produced a stunning right-footed shot which escaped Sylva’s clutches to lodge into the back of the Lille net. The win leaves AEK in third place in Group H with four points, one behind second-placed Lille, with two games remaining. Front runner Milan is on 10 points following its 4-1 thrashing of Anderlecht, also on Wednesday. Anderlecht is last on two points. AEK’s Spanish coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer, his squad and fans have already turned their attention to the next game against AC Milan in Athens on November 21. «Milan are a very big team and of course it’s going to be a lot tougher for us but I think we have the ability to win or to get a result from that match,» said Ferrer. «It’s only 90 minutes and anything can happen,» he added. Yesterday morning, the AEK squad woke up to widespread euphoria in the Greek press after their first ever win in the group stages of the Champions League. Several newspapers spoke of their 1-0 defeat of French club Lille as an historic win. Liberopoulos, who was named man of the match for his finely executed goal, was also praised by his Spanish coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. «Liberopoulos is a superb striker and a team player,» he said. «He can read the game and it is a luxury for us to have a player like him with so much talent.» The 31-year-old described his goal as «definitely one of the most important goals of my career.» In a comment for the official UEFA website, Liberopoulos said, «I saw I had some space and I made up my mind to try and beat the defender and have a shot. It was a wonderful feeling when I saw the ball go in the net and saw the reaction from the fans.» Despite Wednesday’s loss, Lille believe they can make it to the knockout stage of the Champions League. Should the French team beat Anderlecht in Lens’s Stade Felix-Bollaert in a fortnight, Lille will go through providing that Milan do not lose in Greece. Lille play their home games for the Champions League at Lens’s stadium because the club’s own venue is too small for the competition’s requirements. «We will have to do it at home, it will be a three-way battle as we expected,» Lille coach Claude Puel told reporters. «Do not think we are downcast. If we play well against Anderlecht, we will make it,» added center-back Nicolas Plestan. However, the northerners will have to do without Tavlaridis and midfielder Yohan Cabaye, who will both be suspended. (AFP, Reuters)

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