Reducing the deficit: AEK Athens fight for survival
By Bradley King
"There were mistakes which altered the outcome of the match and confirmed once again that AEK's efforts this year are being undermined," read the unwavering official statement from AEK Athens in the wake of their latest defeat, a 1-0 defeat at Panthrakikos. It was a monologue of gritty defiance from the Greeks, unhappy with the performance of the referee. "We would like to inform everyone that no matter how much some people try to destroy AEK, they will not succeed."
The 11-times Greek champions are no strangers to controversy, upheaval and scandal but the latest obstacles which stand in the way of a prosperous future could represent their most daunting challenge yet. The club on whose shirts the famous 'Dikefalos Aetos', translated as double-headed eagle, sits are rock bottom of the Superleague with only 11 points from 14 matches.
It is ten years ago that a star-studded AEK side went through an entire Champions League group stage unbeaten - no mean feat, even for the continent's giants. However the Greeks drew all six of their matches and, although that run included ties with both Real Madrid in the Bernabeu and Roma at the Stadio Olimpico, AEK crashed out.
After Euro 2004, the club lost the likes of Theo Zagorakis and Vassilios Tsiartas in the wake of financial calamity and, as such, the club began to regress. It took an intervention from club legend Demis Nikolaidis to save AEK and, after agreeing a solution to the club's fiscal woes, he set about restoring glory.
The resulting era was upbeat and the 2007/08 season would have fetched AEK their first league title since 1994, had Olympiakos not been awarded three extra points after an opponent fielded an ineligible player earlier in the season.
But in 2012, that all seems such a long time ago. Their most recent failure, the aforementioned 1-0 loss in the north-western city of Komotini, sent them back to the foot of the table. Though AEK are historically accustomed to sitting in the upper echelons of the league, as Greece's 'third team' behind Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, last place is home this season - AEK have spent 13 of 14 game weeks propping up the division.
With the campaign still young, AEK are already a huge 25 points off perennial Superleague specialists Olympiakos. But, in fairness, the most ardent AEK supporter would have recognised that securing the title was never a realistic objective this season. Indeed, staying alive and among Greece's aristocratic would prove to be an achievement.
Against the background of the country's economic meltdown, Greek football clubs endured a turbulent summer. Panathinaikos were among the teams to experience turmoil, and though their suffering was partly offset after the club's fan base gained a majority shareholding, PAO still look to be in transition. They are currently occupying eighth place in the league they once vied for alongside Olympiakos. Few clubs, though, suffered as much as AEK Athens.
Former Greek international Thomas Mavros became president of the club in the summer and he was compelled to sell the majority of their assets; among those to leave were Icelandic international Eidur Gudjohnsen, Brazilian midfielder Leonardo and Colombian international Fabian Vargas, all of whom would have signed lucrative contracts on arrival.
In addition, AEK were forced to sell off some of their most promising young players. Viktor Klonaridis was allowed to join Lille for just €800,000 while Konstantinos Manolas, once a target for Everton, signed for Olympiakos after his contract expired. In short, AEK had to start from scratch.
AEK new-look squad is a shadow of its former self. Vangelis Vlachos was unable to work miracles with it and lost his job as manager in September. New boss Ewald Lienen has so far failed to galvanise his inexperienced squad. If AEK Athens are to avoid drifting into the obscurity of Greece's lower divisions, they need to find a way of manufacturing some gritty defiance on the pitch - the kind they found in the Bernabeu ten years ago.