AEK Larnaca failed to make the Europa League group stages after a 3-0 defeat (4-0 aggregate) at the hands of Slovan Liberec on Thursday, in what was a night to forget for the Cypriot runners up.
The Larnaca club entered the game with high hopes of repeating the heroics that saw them defeat Spartak Moscow in Russia in the previous round, but Jan Sykora’s first-half hat-trick spelled the end of AEK’s dreams of making the group stages for the second time in their history.
Their task ahead of kick-off was complicated enough as it was, trailing by one away goal after Vladimir Coufal’s header at the Antonis Papadopoulos last week. The first thing that manager Imanol Idiakez would have stressed to his players was to not concede an early goal.
Yet that was exactly what happened – Milan Baros beat his man on the right touchline before cutting the ball back to Sykora who then dispatched from close range after just eight minutes.
At that point, the objective remained the same for AEK, as they still needed two goals to see them into the Europa League groups.
However, their task became increasingly unrealistic seven minutes later when Egon Vuch drove down the right wing and had the time to pick out Sykora on the far post who then had the simple task of blasting the ball into an empty net from six yards out.
AEK’s first sight of goal came on 34 minutes, when a quick breakaway ended in Tete having a shot across goal, but it was comfortably saved by Martin Dubravka.
Over 100 fans from Cyprus travelled to the Czech Republic to attend the game, but even the most optimistic AEK fan could not concede that their European dream was over before half-time.
A simple goal kick from the home side was allowed to bounce twice before Vuch flicked a header on towards Sykora who side-footed the ball beyond Mino for his hat-trick and a 3-0 lead (4-0 aggregate).
The tempo of the match naturally subsided in the second period with the result all but confirmed. Other than a long-range drive from Joan Tomas on the hour mark and a header on target from Ivan Trickovski soon after, AEK were unable to find a spark for any possible comeback.
Their chance of a consolation came via a penalty on 87 minutes, but even that could not be attained as Tomas’ penalty was saved by Dubravka. Ander Murillo was then sent off to cap a miserable evening.
All in all, AEK can be proud of a solid campaign but will be left disappointed at being knocked out by a side who were not of the same calibre as Spartak in the previous round.