Rejuvenated AEK Athens would be tricky test for Celtic in Europe

Celtic players celebrate their comfortable first qualifying round win over FC Alashkert. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
Celtic players celebrate their comfortable first qualifying round win over FC Alashkert. Picture: Craig Foy/SNS
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Celtic will face Greek opposition for only the second time 
in their 56-year European history if they progress to the third qualifying round of the Champions League.

Yesterday’s draw at Uefa headquarters in Nyon paired Greek champions AEK Athens with the winner of Celtic’s second qualifying round tie against Rosenborg.

On paper, it looks like one of the more difficult assignments Celtic could have landed as the seeded club at this stage of the competition.

Brendan Rodgers’ side are pencilled in to be at home in the first leg on 7 or 8 August with the return fixture scheduled for the Olympic Stadium in Athens on 14 August.

The only previous occasion Celtic have played a Greek club in European club competition was back in 1974-75 when they suffered a surprise 3-1 aggregate defeat by Olympiacos in the first round of the European Cup.

AEK Athens are a familiar
name to Scottish football in general, however, having played Rangers, Hearts, Hibs and Dundee United in Europe through the years.

They remain one of Greece’s biggest and best-supported clubs, alongside traditional rivals Olympiacos and Panathinaikos, despite experiencing difficulties both on and off the pitch in recent years.

AEK dropped into the third tier of Greek league football in 2013 as a result of financial problems. Under the ownership of shipping magnate Dimitris Melissanidis, they secured back-to-back promotions to regain their top-flight status and last year their revival was completed when they were crowned Greek champions for the first time in 24 years.

In a dramatic campaign, they finished six points clear of PAOK who had three points deducted after their president, Ivan Savvidis, ran on to the pitch with a hand gun during a game between the teams in March. The often combustible Greek Superleague was temporarily suspended by the authorities.

AEK, who beat Rangers 3-0 on aggregate in the Champions League qualifiers of 1994-95, have not reached the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition since 2006-07 when they defeated Hearts 5-1 on aggregate in the final qualifying round.

Like Celtic, they reached the last 32 of the Europa League last season. They were unbeaten in the group stage against AC Milan, Austria Vienna and Croatian side Rijeka before losing on away goals to Dinamo Kiev in the knockout phase.

Former Sevilla coach Manuel Jimenez, who guided AEK to their wildly-celebrated domestic title triumph, left the club this summer to return to Spain and take charge of Las Palmas.

He was replaced by Marinos Ouzounidis, a 49-year-old former Greek international defender and captain, who had been in charge of Panathinaikos for the previous two years.

Ouzounidis has been reshaping the squad he inherited, having seen last season’s key man and top scorer Lazaros Christodoulopoulos move to rivals Olympiacos after a dispute over his contract.

Among the replacements the new head coach has recruited so far are the Argentine attacking duo Lucas Boye and Ezequiel Ponce on loans from Torino and Roma respectively. Brazilian midfielder Alef has also joined on loan from Braga, while Croatian forward Marko Livaja has completed a permanent £1.8 million move from Las Palmas after a successful loan with AEK last season.

Ouzounidis is likely to travel to Glasgow this week to watch the first leg of the Celtic-Rosenborg tie tomorrow night, with the return game in Trondheim the following Wednesday.

“Our potential opponents do not need much to be said about them as they are both well known in Europe,” said the AEK boss.

“Celtic is Scotland’s permanent champion and has a team of top value players with lots of European experience. They start their domestic championship on 4 August but, if we play them, they will have had two rounds of Champions League qualifiers already which ensures they are fit and ready at this time of the season.

“Rosenborg is a team that also has a long track record in European competitions and have been in the Champions League group stage many times, so you can never ignore them. They have been the champions of Norway most times in recent years, while we must not forget that at this time their championship is at the halfway stage and that means that Rosenborg is at a very competitive pace.

“We will watch the two matches for the Champions League qualifiers between these two teams and then we will make much more concrete conclusions about their situation and their potential.

“Of course, at this level we know that there is no easy opponent and that we too should show our best possible self to get where we want. In order to move forward in Europe, you must in some cases beat very strong opponents.”

The losers of the Celtic-Rosenborg tie, meanwhile, will drop into the third qualifying round of the Europa League where they would face reigning League of Ireland champions Cork City. The first leg of that tie would be scheduled for Cork’s Turner’s Cross Stadium on 9 August with the second leg on 16 August.

Cork City, whose attack is spearheaded by former 
St Johnstone striker Graham Cummins, lost 4-0 on aggregate to Legia Warsaw in the first qualifying round of this season’s Champions League.