Ajax vs AEK Athens – Wednesday, September 19, 17:55BST/18:55 CEST – Johan Cruijff ArenA, Amsterdam, Netherlands
After a season without European group stage football, Ajax Amsterdam are back. Finishing second in the Eredivisie last season Ajax had to get through three rounds of Champions League qualifiers to get to this stage of the competition.
Back in the Champions League Ajax hope to make up for a lost year. Peter Bosz guided the club to the 2017 Europa League final but then moved on to Dortmund. He was replaced by Marcel Keizer, who in turn was fired by December and replaced with Erik ten Hag. Keizer had failed to get the club into the Champions League group stages after losing to Nice in the third round of qualification. Even worse Keizer also stumbled over Rosenborg in the Europa League qualifiers, which meant no group stage football for Ajax last season.
In fairness, some of Keizer’s problems may have stemmed from the Abdelhak Nouri, who collapsed during a test match ahead of the season and is still in critical condition today. Under ten Hag Ajax somewhat stabilised at least – the club finished second in the league behind winners PSV and qualified for Group E of the Champions League this season.
Ten Hag, however, was under some criticism at the start of the season but Champions League qualification and 13 out of 15 possible points out of the first five games in the Eredivisie has meant that the 48-year-old is out of the line of fire. Expectations are, however, always high in Amsterdam and drawn in a group with Bayern, Benfica and Wednesday’s opponents AEK there is an understanding that the Amsterdammers could qualify from this group.
A four-times European Cup/Champions League winner Ajax last won Europe’s premier competition in 1995. Incidentally, it was also that year that Ajax met opponent AEK. Ajax won both games in the group stage on their way to the final where they would beat Milan at the Ernst-Happel-Stadion in Vienna.
Greek champions for the 12th time in 2017/18 – their first championship success since 1994 – AEK entered this season’s UEFA Champions League in the third qualifying round, where they defeated Celtic 3-2 on aggregate (1-1 away, 2-1 home) to reach the playoffs. There they overcame Hungarian club Vidi 3-2 over two games (2-1 away, 1-1 home).
It was the crowning achievement of a turbulent 2017/18 season. AEK Athens and PAOK chased each other for much of the year making the best out of the chaos at Olympiakos to finally break the dominance of the Piraeus based club.
In the end, it was AEK beating out PAOK to the title. PAOK had hurt themselves after President Ivan Savvidis had stormed onto the pitch during the decisive match between PAOK and AEK with a gun holstered to his belt. As a result, AEK completed the greatest comeback in the history of Greek football. Relegated from the first division in 2013 AEK went bankrupt and had to restart in the third division. From there the club slowly rebuilt and like a phoenix from the ashes was crowned champions last May.
This season AEK have started well in the Greek Super League, despite having to play additional Champions League qualification matches. Three wins out of the first three games place the club from the capital on the top of the table together with Olympiakos. Nonetheless, combining Champions League football with domestic duties can be difficult for clubs like AEK, who have not played in the UCL for some time. Hence, Ajax will be the favourites at the Johan Cruijff ArenA on Wednesday in what should be an entertaining game for neutrals.
Ajax vs AEK Athens – Players to look out for:
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar #9 – Ajax
The hunter is once again on the prowl. The 35-year-old striker has shown little signs of age in the Eredivisie and Champions League qualification. The former Schalke striker has already scored six goals in five Eredivisie games – on average he has scored every 61 minutes in domestic play this season. Huntelaar was also key in getting Ajax to this stage of the competition with four goals in six Champions League qualification matches.
Ezequiel Ponce #22 – AEK
On loan from Roma Ezequiel Ponce had a great start at AEK. The 21-year-old Argentine striker has already scored two goals in three Greek Super League matches this season. Signed by Roma from Newell’s Old Boys in 2015 Ponce is already on his third loan spell and the Italian side hope that Champions League football will provide Ponce with the next stage in his development.
Ajax vs AEK Athens – Match Stats
- The sides’ only past fixtures came in the group stage of Ajax’s victorious 1994/95 UEFA Champions League campaign. The Dutch side won both fixtures, recording a 2-1 away victory in September 1994 and a 2-0 win in Amsterdam in December.
- Second in the Eredivisie last season, Ajax are in the UEFA Champions League group stage for the 14th time, but the first since 2014/15. Then their campaign ended in the group stage, for the fifth year in a row; they have not progressed from their section since 2005/06.
- Ajax are unbeaten in Europe in 2018/19, beating Sturm Graz home (2-0) and away (3-1) in the UEFA Champions League second qualifying round and Standard Liège 5-2 on aggregate in the third qualifying round (2-2 away, 3-0 home) before overcoming Dynamo Kyiv 3-1 in the playoffs (3-1 home, 0-0 away).
- Ajax’s sole defeat at home to Greek clubs (W4 D3) marked a little piece of UEFA Champions League history as they went down 1-0 against Panathinaikos in the 1995/96 semi-final first leg. However, a 3-0 second-leg victory in Athens marked the first time a side had won a knockout phase tie after losing the first game at home; it has still only happened twice.
- AEK are in the group stage for the fifth time – and the first since 2006/07.
- All four of the Athens club’s previous UEFA Champions League group campaigns have ended at that stage.
- AEK have lost all four European matches in the Netherlands, all without scoring; they conceded ten goals in that run.
Futbolgrad Network Prediction: Ajax vs AEK Athens – 4-2
Ajax vs AEK Athens – Lineups
Onana – Tagliafico, Blind, de Ligt, Mazraoui – de Jong, Neres, Schöne – Tadić, Huntelaar, Ziyech
Head Coach: Erik ten Hag
Barkas – Bakakis, Oikonomou, Lampropoulos, Hult – Rodrigo Galo, André Simões, Galanopoulos, Mantalos – Klonaridis – Ponce
Head Coach: Marinos Ouzounidis
Manuel Veth is the owner and Editor in Chief of the Futbolgrad Network. He also works as a freelance journalist and among others works for the Bundesliga and Pro Soccer USA. He holds a Doctorate of Philosophy in History from King’s College London, and his thesis is titled: “Selling the People’s Game: Football’s transition from Communism to Capitalism in the Soviet Union and its Successor States,” which is available HERE. Originally from Munich, Manuel has lived in Amsterdam, Kyiv, Moscow, Tbilisi, London, and currently is located in Victoria BC, Canada. Follow Manuel on Twitter @ManuelVeth.