Greek champions eager to leave positive impression in European League
The passionate AEK supporters had more than a few reasons to celebrate as both the men's football and handball clubs won their domestic league titles last season.
AEK Athens HC won the Greek championship after a dramatic play-off final against their eternal rivals, Olympiacos SFP, to lift the fifth title in the club's history. The Athens-based club secured a place in the EHF European League Men group phase, putting them back in the competition after featuring in the EHF European Cup Men last year.
AEK Athens HC have been placed in group B alongside TSV Hannover-Burgdorf, HC Kriens-Luzern and Górnik Zabrze. The newly-appointed coach, Dragan Djukić took over the helm from his predecessor, Alexandros Alvanos, just a few days ago and now, the experienced Serbian is getting the squad ready for the start of their European journey next month with seven new arrivals joining their ranks over the summer. Patrik Martinović is one of them, and the talented right back left RK Celje on the back of 25 goals scored in the Machineseeker EHF Champions League last season.
"Things and habits don't change overnight, I will try to keep all the good things that were characteristic of AEK Athens HC in the previous successful seasons, but also to add a little bit of the "taste" of handball that the teams I have coached have always had. I hope that with the support of my players, we will succeed in that together!
"Let's be honest, sport is so magnificently beautiful because it gives us the opportunity to dream beyond reality. The coach's role is not only to lead his team to realistic goals, but also to set goals that sometimes seem unattainable. Of course, there is a lot of work and sacrifice on the way to that goal, and it's just those who are ready for it who eventually succeed. Simple, right?" says Djukić
The club from Greece's capital featured in Europe's second-tier club competition back in 2021/22, but unfortunately for them, failed to nail down a place in the knockout phase, finishing in only fifth place out of six, with four wins and six defeats from ten matches in the group phase. However, the 61-year-old Djukić coached MOL Tatabánya KC back then and even faced the defeated AEK Athens in group D, but now he is eager to help the squad by using his expertise to leave a much better impression in the upcoming season.
"The EHF European League Men is a high-quality and balanced competition in which there are no easy opponents. If we're going to speak honestly, we're outsiders because, for example, TSV Hannover-Burgdorf or Kriens-Luzern are teams that have an advantage due to their rosters and ambitions. Also, the way Zabrze is playing this year in the strong Polish League shows that they are able to upset the favorites.
Our chances on paper are not that big, but I am sure that we will not give up without a big fight, especially in front of our fans, and every point won in this competition is important, both for our club and for Greek handball as a whole." says Djukić.
The long-standing captain of the squad, Panagiotis Nikolaidis, outlines the ambition shared with his teammates to display the very same energy and passion that they show when they play in the Greek championship.
"It is very important for us to win again the Greek championship. It is our goal every year and we fight about it. In Europe, we will give our 100 per cent and play with passion. We have a very strong team and we are very happy for our participation in the EHF European League Men," says Nikolaidis.
One of the key players in the squad is Croatian left back Stipe Mandalinić. He only joined the Greek club last year, but made huge strides to become an irreplaceable member of the starting line-up. Also, the 31-year-old is one of the most experienced players in the team, having played across the EHF's club competitions for several different clubs. Most notably, he scored 64 goals representing HC Eurofarm Pelister in the EHF European League Men back in 2021/22.
"I am very satisfied and happy. I played very well last year, for which I was awarded the best left back and MVP of the Greek League. I think I can help with the experience of playing in the EHF Champions League and the EHF European League Men,” Mandalinić says.
“We have a lot of quality and experienced players in the team and I think we will be good competitors in the EHF European League Men. AEK Athens HC has a good project and I think we are on the right track. We have very good fans, every game at home will be difficult for the opponent,” he adds.
The former EHF European Cup winners from 2020/21 are opening the season with an away trip to Górnik Zabrze in Poland before hosting HC Kriens-Luzern at home. With AEK's fans having waited one season for their favourites to make a comeback in the EHF European League, they will be impatiently counting down to 24 October to make themselves heard in Europe again.
Photos © Stefanou Stelios / AEK Athens