AEK Larnaca’s Sports Director Xavi Roca expressed his encouragement to all disheartened supporters via LinkedIN following the team’s 1-1 draw against Anorthosis on Sunday.

Since his arrival at the club in 2021, Roca has transformed AEK from mere title hopefuls to genuine contenders. As AEK heads into the final match of the season against APOEL, a win will secure their first ever Protathlima, effectively dispelling any notions that the club collapses under pressure.

Under Roca’s guidance, AEK has undeniably shown steady improvement. In the 2021-2022 season, they clinched second place and a Champions League qualifying berth on the season’s final day. The following year, despite finishing third domestically, the club’s European journey was noteworthy, advancing to the Conference League’s round of 16 before being eliminated by eventual champions West Ham.

This season didn’t unfold as anticipated. AEK experienced an early setback with their elimination from the Conference League in the third qualifying round by Maccabi Haifa, dashing hopes of replicating the previous season’s successes. This disappointment was compounded by a disastrous start to the league campaign, with only two wins in the first eight games.

A 5-0 victory over Karmiotissa in October failed to alleviate the mounting pressure on Head Coach Luis Oltra, whose fate was sealed following a 3-0 defeat at the hands of APOEL two weeks later. Oltra became the fourth managerial casualty at AEK since 2021. His successor emerged in the form of Israeli coach Ben Shimon, formerly at the helm of the Cypriot national team.

AEK found themselves in 8th position, trailing the top spot by 10 points and struggling with their performance, making a title contention seem improbable. APOEL and Aris shared the lead with 23 points each, while Omonoia and Pafos followed closely behind by a margin of 3 points. This situation left Ben Shimon’s team with only a distant prospect of securing a top 6 finish, especially with Apollon holding the final playoff spot, 5 points ahead of AEK at the time.

AEK surged into 3rd place with an impressive streak of 12 victories in their next 15 games, trailing first-placed APOEL by 7 points as they entered the playoffs. Their momentum continued with three wins and a draw in the first four playoff matches, positioning them as serious contenders for the title, closing the gap to APOEL to just 4 points. The impact of the Ben Shimon Effect was unmistakable and gaining momentum.

On March 31st, AEK missed the chance to surpass APOEL at the pinnacle by a mere 2 points, succumbing to a 2-1 defeat against the Nicosia team despite initially taking a 1-0 lead. This loss widened the gap to 4 points between AEK and the leaders, prompting critics to label the Larnaca side as “bottlers.” However, a triumphant streak of three consecutive victories (against Pafos FC 3-0, Aris 1-0, and Omonoia 2-0) propelled AEK to within a single point of APOEL as they approached the penultimate match of the season.

Ben Shimon’s men were heavy favourites in the encounter with a depleted Anorthosis side, blighted by financial woes and a weakened squad. A header from Rafa Lopes on the quarter hour mark put AEK in the lead and they looked destined to leapfrog APOEL who fell a goal behind against Omonoia. AEK were made to pay for failing to convert their opportunities as Anorthosis levelled deep into injury time.

AEK’s defence couldn’t cope with Kiko’s bending free kick, which rattled the post. Goalkeeper Piric reacted swiftly, clawing the rebound instinctively, but it landed in the path of Anorthosis defender Makoun, who executed an acrobatic overhead kick that found its way into the net, securing an unexpected draw for the visitors. As the final whistle echoed through the AEK Arena, a hush descended among the supporters, who’d come to the realisation that their team had missed the opportunity to lead the table and enter the crucial final game of the season against APOEL with a one point advantage over their title rivals.

AEK faces daunting odds as their last triumph over APOEL dates back to a narrow 2-1 victory in 2015. Anything less than a victory for AEK would result in APOEL clinching their 29th league title, breaking a five-year drought. This triumph would not only alleviate their financial concerns but also satisfy their demanding fan base. Conversely, an unexpected victory for AEK would secure their inaugural title and silence critics who label them as “perennial bottlers.”