After pulling off a major upset in the previous round, AEK Larnaca will fancy their chances against Slovan Liberec in the first leg of the Europa League playoffs on Thursday night.
The Cypriot side scored an 88th minute winner against Spartak Moscow in Russia a fortnight ago to earn a 2-1 aggregate victory which sent shockwaves around European football.
AEK were huge underdogs against Spartak, so their meeting with the side from the Czech Republic is unlikely to intimidate them after their exploits against one of the most fancied sides in qualifying.
Imanol Idiakez is not resting on his laurels however, and has moved swiftly in the transfer market to bring in former Manchester City full-back Javier Garrido, which will give them a boost going into the two-legged affair.
The AEK boss has a healthy squad to choose from, including Vincent Laban who now looks to be fully fit after missing both games against Spartak, and talisman Ivan Trickovski who has six goals in this year’s Europa League, including the one that decided the tie in Russia two weeks ago.
AEK are in fine form in this year’s Europa League qualifying campaign, having won five out of their six matches. Last year’s Cypriot first division runners up have scored 13 goals in those games and conceded four. While AEK continue to impress, the same cannot be said about their upcoming opponents.
Slovan have started their domestic campaign in miserable fashion, losing twice and drawing once in their first three games. Their latest defeat came on Saturday in a 2-1 defeat to Zlin, leaving the side with the third lowest points tally in the table.
The Czechs entered this year’s Europa League qualifying in the third round and overcame the challenge of Austria’s Admira with a 4-1 aggregate win. And despite their poor start to the season, their recent away form in Europe is impressive, with seven wins from their last ten travels, including a win at Marseille in last year’s group stages.
Of the 25-man Czech Republic squad for the recent European Championships, there were no representatives from Slovan Liberec, though many will remember former Liverpool striker Milan Baros, who is among their ranks.
While playing the first leg at home is traditionally less favourable, AEK managed just fine against Spartak with the same order of fixtures, and a big crowd is expected to help them get off to a flying start in the tie at the Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium. The match kicks off at 8.00pm local time with temperatures expected to be around 32 degrees Celsius.