Next Match VS Panetolikos

Αφιέρωμα

An incredible journey

A lot has been said about everything being about the journey rather than the destination… Perhaps to appreciate either one or the other, some time and distance from the event itself is needed. However, in our case, as far as PAOK’s progress in the newly-formed UEFA Europa Conference League of the 2021-22 season is concerned – from that cold start in Dublin to the bittersweet finale at the Toumba against Marseille – there is no room for second thoughts. The journey was unforgettable and the destination –the quarter-finals of the European competition – historic. We will remember so much… The qualification from the group at the last moment, the penalties against Midtjylland, Gent, the goal in the Velodrome, the heart palpitations at the Toumba, the recognition, the uplifting feeling of achievement… «What a journey! What an effort!” said UEFA’s post on the competition’s official Twitter account. We couldn’t agree more…

From Dublin to Rijeka

Not even PAOK could escape the “trap” of the summer qualifiers, with the Double-headed Eagle slipping to a 2-1 defeat by Bohemians in Dublin in their opening match of the newly-established UEFA Europa Conference League. PAOK found themselves with their backs against the wall, but Oliveira struck in the 77th minute to limit the damage and provide some optimism for the return leg at the Toumba. Schwab crossed from the left and the Portuguese forward scored his first competitive goal in a PAOK jersey with a perfect header.

On August 12, PAOK had one goal, which was of course, to qualify. And the players pursued it passionately from the early stages. The home side were ahead after just four minutes when Stefan Schwab opened the scoring after a corner by Andrija Zivkovic found Bisešwar, who in turn crossed for his teammate to score with his head. Biseswar made it 2-0 in the 28th minute, taking advantage of Kaddouri’s assist. PAOK remained focused until the end against the Irish, taking the victory and the ticket to the Play Offs.

Next up was Rijeka, with the first match at the Toumba. PAOK were persistent, but ineffective, resulting in the home side needing an own goal at the end of the match in order to salvage a 1-1 draw.The Croatians had taken the lead in the 33rd minute when Galesic, who had come on as a substitute, scored with a header.

The ticket for the group stage was to be decided in Croatia on August 26th, where PAOK showed their consistent and “serious” face, locking up the game and tie with a 2-0 win. Razvan Lucescu’s players scored once in each half and went through. El Kaddouri was on the scoresheet, with Schwab the creator, to make it 1-0 to PAOK, before Murg made it 2-0 in the 80th minute following an assist by Swiderski.

A group with European regulars as well as a rookie

The draw in Istanbul saw PAOK put in a group with Slovan Bratislava, FC Copenhagen, and European rookies Lincoln from Gibraltar. The first match – and experience – came in Gibraltar with PAOK winning 2-0. Chuba Akpom opened the scoring after Lucas Taylor’s mazy run and pass, and Mitrita added a second to make the final score 2-0 to the visitors.

The next match was at the Toumba against Slovan. PAOK were superior throughout the game, in terms of control and possession, but again the home side were ineffective this time as well. PAOK could only muster only one goal in the ninth minute, with Akpom again the scorer, and unfortunately the visitors’ response was immediate in the 14th minute with the game ending 1-1.

Away from home, in Copenhagen, things went much better. PAOK won 2-1, taking a decisive step to locking up first place and qualification from the group. The Double-headed Eagle took the lead in the 19th minute with Sidcley’s header after an excellent cross from Zivkovic, who then gave PAOK a two-goal lead in the 38th minute. Biel reduced the deficit to 2-1 with a powerful shot in the 80th minute which set up a dramatic character to the rest of the match but the visitors held on.

Copenhagen, however, gave PAOK a taste of their own medicine at the Toumba, winning 2-1 and going top of the group/ PAOK had taken an early lead in the eighth minute, with Andrija Zivkovic on target, but the Danes drew level in the 34th minute and finally in the 50th minute, they scored a winning goal to claim an important away win. That meant PAOK had to play what was effectively a qualifying “final” in Bratislava against Slovan the following matchday (both PAOK and Slovan had seven points).

The opportunity to celebrate qualification to the knockouts from 25.11 was thrown into the rubbish bin by PAOK at the Tehelne Pole stadium, however, as a goalless draw kept the teams level on eight points, with Slovan holding a one-goal lead on goal difference 8-5 to 6-4.

The qualification scenarios were such that PAOK needed to achieve a better result than Slovan in the last matchday, with the Slovaks facing Copenhagen away from home. The Danes had already locked up top spot with a 4-0 win against Lincoln. Also, another scenario was that PAOK would qualify if they could beat Lincoln at the Toumba with two more goals than Slovan. In the event that the Slovaks lost, a draw would be enough for PAOK.

The last matchday of the group stage, therefore, for PAOK at the Toumba against Lincoln and the hosts managed to complete the minimum prerequisite. They won 2-0 (Zivkovic and Schwab scored the goals), while in the other match Copenhagen beat Slovan Bratislava 2-0, and after a bad period of the season with several negative results, PAOK clinched an important European qualification, and at the same time a huge breath of relief.

The heady qualification over Midtjylland

Despite looking extremely solid, PAOK were beaten by Midtjylland in Denmark 1-0 in the two teams’ first-leg meeting in the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League Play Offs, leaving everything open for the return leg at the Toumba. The Double-headed Eagle played well, found spaces, but did not have enough quality and good decisions in the final third, with Anderson’s 21st-minute strike beating Paschalakis for 1-0 to the hosts proving to be the only goal of the game.

The picture at the Toumba was very different. After 20 minutes, Colak’s determination saw him turn a chance that seemed lost into an assist and Zivkovic made it 1-0 with a prodded effort. Just six minutes later…The Leader stepped up. The Danes cleared the ball to the edge of the penalty area, but Vieirinha arrived right on time, controlled the ball beautifully and fired home a thunderous shot to make it 2-0 to PAOK! The Danes pressed and found a goal that sent the match into extra-time, with Hoegue scoring in the 80th minute. The half-hour of extra-time came and went with PAOK dominating, but the hosts wasted two good chances to «lock up» the match and the qualification.

Therefore, it was on to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, with Paschalakis facing this scenario for the first time in his career. As if waiting for it for some time, however, he saved the first penalty, before seeing Colak, Sidcley, Schwab, Mitrita and Kurtić – in that exact order – all do their duty perfectly with determination and a clear mind. The result was Paschalakis celebrating wildly as he enjoyed one of the most exciting nights of his career.

PAOK clinched an intoxicating qualification to the «Round of 16» of the tournament and enjoyed it immensely, since as it should be noted, among other things, the club had never before qualified on penalties in a European match.

The… fall of Gent

Focused on their objective, disciplined and serious, PAOK found the net with a direct free-kick from the usual suspect, Jasmin Kurtic, and beat Gent 1-0 at the Toumba. The result meant the team took an important first step towards qualifying for the «quarter-finals» of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League.

The Double-headed Eagle coped with the opposition’s early attempts to attack, and the home side surprised the Belgians in the second half with two counter-attacks. Then, the breakthrough came in the 58th minute, when the ball was set up outside the area after a foul. It was inviting for Kurtić, who did not miss the chance to score. And so, 1-0 was how it finished, albeit with some concern since Andrija Živkovic and Kurtić would be suspended for the second leg.

As it turned out, of course, the trip to Belgium was a successful one. PAOK traveled without many absentees, but went beyond their limits, «lost» Crespo somewhere along the way, and offered perhaps the most shocking image of the match with the bloodied Vieirinha «fighting» until the very end. And finally, PAOK were happy to celebrate a well-deserved qualification to the last eight of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League. The final result was a 2-1 away win for PAOK, with goals from Crespo and Douglas Augusto. The players bowed to the travelling fans and drank in all of the nectar of the moment, so ephemeral and so strong in the memory of those who experienced it.

The match started with anxiety on display, but in the 20th minute, after a sustained period of pressure, Crespo gave PAOK the lead with a powerful shot. The hosts responded and were level in the 39th minute with a header from Depoitre. They pressed for another goal, but PAOK held on and ended the half at 1-1. At the break, Crespo limped out injured, the Belgians began strongly, but fortunately they could not manage to find the goal they wanted. In the 67th minute, PAOK’s captain was struck on the head. There was blood, and some dizziness. But those are mere details for Vieirinha, who got patched up with bandages and continued. And in the 78th minute, after a clever combination play, he laid the ball to Augusto, who produced an amazing lofted effort to score and put PAOK 2-1 up. And this is the way it stayed up to the final whistle. A victory against all odds, and a historic qualification.

A hell of a journey

Marseille. The Orange Velodrome. The quarter-finals of a European competition. Laconic and to the point. Nothing less than the biggest challenge in PAOK’s history. Until the next one.

The atmosphere was enthralling. The match again, difficult from the beginning, as in the first half the home team had the upper hand and scored two goals. They opened the scoring in the 13th minute through Gerson. Payet played in the Brazilian midfielder with a threaded pass, and Gerson, who looked to be marginally offside, beat Paschalakis with a powerful shot. After that, Payet was the man who made it 2-0 with an incredible strike at the end of the half.

The second half, however, was a completely different picture with PAOK taking control from the start, with Omar El Kaddouri prompting celebrations and vibrations in the stands where the black and white traveling fans were hosted. A wonderful back-heel from Andrija Zivkovic in the 48th minute put the Moroccan in a shooting position, and Kaddouri scored with a great effort to reduce the deficit to 2-1, seven nights before the return leg “final” at the Toumba.

PAOK’s task in France was a plan with many demands, a plan that had to cover many parameters, primarily for the club’s supporters. It turned out to be a journey of suffering, perseverance, and patience. No one was daunted, the Double-headed Eagle had the drive and motivation that the circumstances required, and carried out an extremely difficult mission in an exemplary manner, enjoying the reactions also from the fans. Above all, it gave hope, optimism, and that sweet anticipation that gives light to our days.

Often, even if it is not made abundantly clear, the story precedes the narrative. One realizes it in hindsight, when one steps back a certain distance – temporal and emotional – from the event. Those seven days of anticipation, that fluttering in the stomach from the morning of April 14th, those hours before, during the match, but mostly, the hours after. The shiver, the numbness, even that effortless snort afterwards, at the «well done» and the «thank you», perhaps it is not possible to recount them as they deserve. You experience these things, and you carry them inside you…

We’ll try, though. Perhaps we cannot avoid exaggeration. Forgive us… And so, PAOK were a joy to behold, they completely dominated the French side, they missed a ton of chances, and they never gave up. However, in the end they did not manage to celebrate the qualification. Even if the match at the Toumba did not start with the best of omens, as Omar El Kaddouri felt some discomfort in the warm-up and left the pitch an inconsolable figure ahead of kick-off.

By the first quarter of an hour, PAOK had already missed three great opportunities through Tsingaras, Crespo and Akpom. A clinical Marseille, however, were the ones who found the opening goal. In the 34th minute, they stole the ball after Guendouzi’s counter-attack following Crespo’s tackle. The former combined well with Payet and he struck to make it 1-0 to the visitors. Of course, this did not deter a spirited PAOK side, who reacted immediately and came close to a goal on three more occasions before half-time. Andrija Zivkovic was unable to find the target in the 39th minute, the ever-present Marseille ‘keeper Mandada stopping Lyratzis in the 41st minute, and Akpom was also unable to score in the 45th minute. The situation was similar in the second half as well, with the top moments being Colak’s one-on-one, Douglas’ shot, and Mitrita’s effort. So close and yet so far, as it turned out, from a goal.

The final verdict? Sixteen goal attempts for PAOK, some incredible chances missed, a Mandada on song on a night he will always remember, a clinical goal for Marseille, and another chance in the 48th minute, and finally the ticket for the semi-final in the hands of the French.

What followed after the final whistle in PAOK’s greatest European adventure, that bittersweet failure of the dream, was clearly one of the Toumba’s finest moments. One that will last forever perhaps.

After all, when you overcome the fear of rejection and failure, recognition then comes. Everything is on the other side of fear, something that never occupies the collective mind of the Double-headed Eagle.

Indeed, then, dear Mr. Lucescu. It was a hell of a journey!

Αφιέρωμα

An incredible journey

A lot has been said about everything being about the journey rather than the destination… Perhaps to appreciate either one or the other, some time and distance from the event itself is needed. However, in our case, as far as PAOK’s progress in the newly-formed UEFA Europa Conference League of the 2021-22 season is concerned – from that cold start in Dublin to the bittersweet finale at the Toumba against Marseille – there is no room for second thoughts. The journey was unforgettable and the destination –the quarter-finals of the European competition – historic. We will remember so much… The qualification from the group at the last moment, the penalties against Midtjylland, Gent, the goal in the Velodrome, the heart palpitations at the Toumba, the recognition, the uplifting feeling of achievement… «What a journey! What an effort!” said UEFA’s post on the competition’s official Twitter account. We couldn’t agree more…

From Dublin to Rijeka

Not even PAOK could escape the “trap” of the summer qualifiers, with the Double-headed Eagle slipping to a 2-1 defeat by Bohemians in Dublin in their opening match of the newly-established UEFA Europa Conference League. PAOK found themselves with their backs against the wall, but Oliveira struck in the 77th minute to limit the damage and provide some optimism for the return leg at the Toumba. Schwab crossed from the left and the Portuguese forward scored his first competitive goal in a PAOK jersey with a perfect header.

On August 12, PAOK had one goal, which was of course, to qualify. And the players pursued it passionately from the early stages. The home side were ahead after just four minutes when Stefan Schwab opened the scoring after a corner by Andrija Zivkovic found Bisešwar, who in turn crossed for his teammate to score with his head. Biseswar made it 2-0 in the 28th minute, taking advantage of Kaddouri’s assist. PAOK remained focused until the end against the Irish, taking the victory and the ticket to the Play Offs.

Next up was Rijeka, with the first match at the Toumba. PAOK were persistent, but ineffective, resulting in the home side needing an own goal at the end of the match in order to salvage a 1-1 draw.The Croatians had taken the lead in the 33rd minute when Galesic, who had come on as a substitute, scored with a header.

The ticket for the group stage was to be decided in Croatia on August 26th, where PAOK showed their consistent and “serious” face, locking up the game and tie with a 2-0 win. Razvan Lucescu’s players scored once in each half and went through. El Kaddouri was on the scoresheet, with Schwab the creator, to make it 1-0 to PAOK, before Murg made it 2-0 in the 80th minute following an assist by Swiderski.

A group with European regulars as well as a rookie

The draw in Istanbul saw PAOK put in a group with Slovan Bratislava, FC Copenhagen, and European rookies Lincoln from Gibraltar. The first match – and experience – came in Gibraltar with PAOK winning 2-0. Chuba Akpom opened the scoring after Lucas Taylor’s mazy run and pass, and Mitrita added a second to make the final score 2-0 to the visitors.

The next match was at the Toumba against Slovan. PAOK were superior throughout the game, in terms of control and possession, but again the home side were ineffective this time as well. PAOK could only muster only one goal in the ninth minute, with Akpom again the scorer, and unfortunately the visitors’ response was immediate in the 14th minute with the game ending 1-1.

Away from home, in Copenhagen, things went much better. PAOK won 2-1, taking a decisive step to locking up first place and qualification from the group. The Double-headed Eagle took the lead in the 19th minute with Sidcley’s header after an excellent cross from Zivkovic, who then gave PAOK a two-goal lead in the 38th minute. Biel reduced the deficit to 2-1 with a powerful shot in the 80th minute which set up a dramatic character to the rest of the match but the visitors held on.

Copenhagen, however, gave PAOK a taste of their own medicine at the Toumba, winning 2-1 and going top of the group/ PAOK had taken an early lead in the eighth minute, with Andrija Zivkovic on target, but the Danes drew level in the 34th minute and finally in the 50th minute, they scored a winning goal to claim an important away win. That meant PAOK had to play what was effectively a qualifying “final” in Bratislava against Slovan the following matchday (both PAOK and Slovan had seven points).

The opportunity to celebrate qualification to the knockouts from 25.11 was thrown into the rubbish bin by PAOK at the Tehelne Pole stadium, however, as a goalless draw kept the teams level on eight points, with Slovan holding a one-goal lead on goal difference 8-5 to 6-4.

The qualification scenarios were such that PAOK needed to achieve a better result than Slovan in the last matchday, with the Slovaks facing Copenhagen away from home. The Danes had already locked up top spot with a 4-0 win against Lincoln. Also, another scenario was that PAOK would qualify if they could beat Lincoln at the Toumba with two more goals than Slovan. In the event that the Slovaks lost, a draw would be enough for PAOK.

The last matchday of the group stage, therefore, for PAOK at the Toumba against Lincoln and the hosts managed to complete the minimum prerequisite. They won 2-0 (Zivkovic and Schwab scored the goals), while in the other match Copenhagen beat Slovan Bratislava 2-0, and after a bad period of the season with several negative results, PAOK clinched an important European qualification, and at the same time a huge breath of relief.

The heady qualification over Midtjylland

Despite looking extremely solid, PAOK were beaten by Midtjylland in Denmark 1-0 in the two teams’ first-leg meeting in the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League Play Offs, leaving everything open for the return leg at the Toumba. The Double-headed Eagle played well, found spaces, but did not have enough quality and good decisions in the final third, with Anderson’s 21st-minute strike beating Paschalakis for 1-0 to the hosts proving to be the only goal of the game.

The picture at the Toumba was very different. After 20 minutes, Colak’s determination saw him turn a chance that seemed lost into an assist and Zivkovic made it 1-0 with a prodded effort. Just six minutes later…The Leader stepped up. The Danes cleared the ball to the edge of the penalty area, but Vieirinha arrived right on time, controlled the ball beautifully and fired home a thunderous shot to make it 2-0 to PAOK! The Danes pressed and found a goal that sent the match into extra-time, with Hoegue scoring in the 80th minute. The half-hour of extra-time came and went with PAOK dominating, but the hosts wasted two good chances to «lock up» the match and the qualification.

Therefore, it was on to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, with Paschalakis facing this scenario for the first time in his career. As if waiting for it for some time, however, he saved the first penalty, before seeing Colak, Sidcley, Schwab, Mitrita and Kurtić – in that exact order – all do their duty perfectly with determination and a clear mind. The result was Paschalakis celebrating wildly as he enjoyed one of the most exciting nights of his career.

PAOK clinched an intoxicating qualification to the «Round of 16» of the tournament and enjoyed it immensely, since as it should be noted, among other things, the club had never before qualified on penalties in a European match.

The… fall of Gent

Focused on their objective, disciplined and serious, PAOK found the net with a direct free-kick from the usual suspect, Jasmin Kurtic, and beat Gent 1-0 at the Toumba. The result meant the team took an important first step towards qualifying for the «quarter-finals» of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League.

The Double-headed Eagle coped with the opposition’s early attempts to attack, and the home side surprised the Belgians in the second half with two counter-attacks. Then, the breakthrough came in the 58th minute, when the ball was set up outside the area after a foul. It was inviting for Kurtić, who did not miss the chance to score. And so, 1-0 was how it finished, albeit with some concern since Andrija Živkovic and Kurtić would be suspended for the second leg.

As it turned out, of course, the trip to Belgium was a successful one. PAOK traveled without many absentees, but went beyond their limits, «lost» Crespo somewhere along the way, and offered perhaps the most shocking image of the match with the bloodied Vieirinha «fighting» until the very end. And finally, PAOK were happy to celebrate a well-deserved qualification to the last eight of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League. The final result was a 2-1 away win for PAOK, with goals from Crespo and Douglas Augusto. The players bowed to the travelling fans and drank in all of the nectar of the moment, so ephemeral and so strong in the memory of those who experienced it.

The match started with anxiety on display, but in the 20th minute, after a sustained period of pressure, Crespo gave PAOK the lead with a powerful shot. The hosts responded and were level in the 39th minute with a header from Depoitre. They pressed for another goal, but PAOK held on and ended the half at 1-1. At the break, Crespo limped out injured, the Belgians began strongly, but fortunately they could not manage to find the goal they wanted. In the 67th minute, PAOK’s captain was struck on the head. There was blood, and some dizziness. But those are mere details for Vieirinha, who got patched up with bandages and continued. And in the 78th minute, after a clever combination play, he laid the ball to Augusto, who produced an amazing lofted effort to score and put PAOK 2-1 up. And this is the way it stayed up to the final whistle. A victory against all odds, and a historic qualification.

A hell of a journey

Marseille. The Orange Velodrome. The quarter-finals of a European competition. Laconic and to the point. Nothing less than the biggest challenge in PAOK’s history. Until the next one.

The atmosphere was enthralling. The match again, difficult from the beginning, as in the first half the home team had the upper hand and scored two goals. They opened the scoring in the 13th minute through Gerson. Payet played in the Brazilian midfielder with a threaded pass, and Gerson, who looked to be marginally offside, beat Paschalakis with a powerful shot. After that, Payet was the man who made it 2-0 with an incredible strike at the end of the half.

The second half, however, was a completely different picture with PAOK taking control from the start, with Omar El Kaddouri prompting celebrations and vibrations in the stands where the black and white traveling fans were hosted. A wonderful back-heel from Andrija Zivkovic in the 48th minute put the Moroccan in a shooting position, and Kaddouri scored with a great effort to reduce the deficit to 2-1, seven nights before the return leg “final” at the Toumba.

PAOK’s task in France was a plan with many demands, a plan that had to cover many parameters, primarily for the club’s supporters. It turned out to be a journey of suffering, perseverance, and patience. No one was daunted, the Double-headed Eagle had the drive and motivation that the circumstances required, and carried out an extremely difficult mission in an exemplary manner, enjoying the reactions also from the fans. Above all, it gave hope, optimism, and that sweet anticipation that gives light to our days.

Often, even if it is not made abundantly clear, the story precedes the narrative. One realizes it in hindsight, when one steps back a certain distance – temporal and emotional – from the event. Those seven days of anticipation, that fluttering in the stomach from the morning of April 14th, those hours before, during the match, but mostly, the hours after. The shiver, the numbness, even that effortless snort afterwards, at the «well done» and the «thank you», perhaps it is not possible to recount them as they deserve. You experience these things, and you carry them inside you…

We’ll try, though. Perhaps we cannot avoid exaggeration. Forgive us… And so, PAOK were a joy to behold, they completely dominated the French side, they missed a ton of chances, and they never gave up. However, in the end they did not manage to celebrate the qualification. Even if the match at the Toumba did not start with the best of omens, as Omar El Kaddouri felt some discomfort in the warm-up and left the pitch an inconsolable figure ahead of kick-off.

By the first quarter of an hour, PAOK had already missed three great opportunities through Tsingaras, Crespo and Akpom. A clinical Marseille, however, were the ones who found the opening goal. In the 34th minute, they stole the ball after Guendouzi’s counter-attack following Crespo’s tackle. The former combined well with Payet and he struck to make it 1-0 to the visitors. Of course, this did not deter a spirited PAOK side, who reacted immediately and came close to a goal on three more occasions before half-time. Andrija Zivkovic was unable to find the target in the 39th minute, the ever-present Marseille ‘keeper Mandada stopping Lyratzis in the 41st minute, and Akpom was also unable to score in the 45th minute. The situation was similar in the second half as well, with the top moments being Colak’s one-on-one, Douglas’ shot, and Mitrita’s effort. So close and yet so far, as it turned out, from a goal.

The final verdict? Sixteen goal attempts for PAOK, some incredible chances missed, a Mandada on song on a night he will always remember, a clinical goal for Marseille, and another chance in the 48th minute, and finally the ticket for the semi-final in the hands of the French.

What followed after the final whistle in PAOK’s greatest European adventure, that bittersweet failure of the dream, was clearly one of the Toumba’s finest moments. One that will last forever perhaps.

After all, when you overcome the fear of rejection and failure, recognition then comes. Everything is on the other side of fear, something that never occupies the collective mind of the Double-headed Eagle.

Indeed, then, dear Mr. Lucescu. It was a hell of a journey!

Αφιέρωμα

An incredible journey

A lot has been said about everything being about the journey rather than the destination… Perhaps to appreciate either one or the other, some time and distance from the event itself is needed. However, in our case, as far as PAOK’s progress in the newly-formed UEFA Europa Conference League of the 2021-22 season is concerned – from that cold start in Dublin to the bittersweet finale at the Toumba against Marseille – there is no room for second thoughts. The journey was unforgettable and the destination –the quarter-finals of the European competition – historic. We will remember so much… The qualification from the group at the last moment, the penalties against Midtjylland, Gent, the goal in the Velodrome, the heart palpitations at the Toumba, the recognition, the uplifting feeling of achievement… «What a journey! What an effort!” said UEFA’s post on the competition’s official Twitter account. We couldn’t agree more…

From Dublin to Rijeka

Not even PAOK could escape the “trap” of the summer qualifiers, with the Double-headed Eagle slipping to a 2-1 defeat by Bohemians in Dublin in their opening match of the newly-established UEFA Europa Conference League. PAOK found themselves with their backs against the wall, but Oliveira struck in the 77th minute to limit the damage and provide some optimism for the return leg at the Toumba. Schwab crossed from the left and the Portuguese forward scored his first competitive goal in a PAOK jersey with a perfect header.

On August 12, PAOK had one goal, which was of course, to qualify. And the players pursued it passionately from the early stages. The home side were ahead after just four minutes when Stefan Schwab opened the scoring after a corner by Andrija Zivkovic found Bisešwar, who in turn crossed for his teammate to score with his head. Biseswar made it 2-0 in the 28th minute, taking advantage of Kaddouri’s assist. PAOK remained focused until the end against the Irish, taking the victory and the ticket to the Play Offs.

Next up was Rijeka, with the first match at the Toumba. PAOK were persistent, but ineffective, resulting in the home side needing an own goal at the end of the match in order to salvage a 1-1 draw.The Croatians had taken the lead in the 33rd minute when Galesic, who had come on as a substitute, scored with a header.

The ticket for the group stage was to be decided in Croatia on August 26th, where PAOK showed their consistent and “serious” face, locking up the game and tie with a 2-0 win. Razvan Lucescu’s players scored once in each half and went through. El Kaddouri was on the scoresheet, with Schwab the creator, to make it 1-0 to PAOK, before Murg made it 2-0 in the 80th minute following an assist by Swiderski.

A group with European regulars as well as a rookie

The draw in Istanbul saw PAOK put in a group with Slovan Bratislava, FC Copenhagen, and European rookies Lincoln from Gibraltar. The first match – and experience – came in Gibraltar with PAOK winning 2-0. Chuba Akpom opened the scoring after Lucas Taylor’s mazy run and pass, and Mitrita added a second to make the final score 2-0 to the visitors.

The next match was at the Toumba against Slovan. PAOK were superior throughout the game, in terms of control and possession, but again the home side were ineffective this time as well. PAOK could only muster only one goal in the ninth minute, with Akpom again the scorer, and unfortunately the visitors’ response was immediate in the 14th minute with the game ending 1-1.

Away from home, in Copenhagen, things went much better. PAOK won 2-1, taking a decisive step to locking up first place and qualification from the group. The Double-headed Eagle took the lead in the 19th minute with Sidcley’s header after an excellent cross from Zivkovic, who then gave PAOK a two-goal lead in the 38th minute. Biel reduced the deficit to 2-1 with a powerful shot in the 80th minute which set up a dramatic character to the rest of the match but the visitors held on.

Copenhagen, however, gave PAOK a taste of their own medicine at the Toumba, winning 2-1 and going top of the group/ PAOK had taken an early lead in the eighth minute, with Andrija Zivkovic on target, but the Danes drew level in the 34th minute and finally in the 50th minute, they scored a winning goal to claim an important away win. That meant PAOK had to play what was effectively a qualifying “final” in Bratislava against Slovan the following matchday (both PAOK and Slovan had seven points).

The opportunity to celebrate qualification to the knockouts from 25.11 was thrown into the rubbish bin by PAOK at the Tehelne Pole stadium, however, as a goalless draw kept the teams level on eight points, with Slovan holding a one-goal lead on goal difference 8-5 to 6-4.

The qualification scenarios were such that PAOK needed to achieve a better result than Slovan in the last matchday, with the Slovaks facing Copenhagen away from home. The Danes had already locked up top spot with a 4-0 win against Lincoln. Also, another scenario was that PAOK would qualify if they could beat Lincoln at the Toumba with two more goals than Slovan. In the event that the Slovaks lost, a draw would be enough for PAOK.

The last matchday of the group stage, therefore, for PAOK at the Toumba against Lincoln and the hosts managed to complete the minimum prerequisite. They won 2-0 (Zivkovic and Schwab scored the goals), while in the other match Copenhagen beat Slovan Bratislava 2-0, and after a bad period of the season with several negative results, PAOK clinched an important European qualification, and at the same time a huge breath of relief.

The heady qualification over Midtjylland

Despite looking extremely solid, PAOK were beaten by Midtjylland in Denmark 1-0 in the two teams’ first-leg meeting in the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League Play Offs, leaving everything open for the return leg at the Toumba. The Double-headed Eagle played well, found spaces, but did not have enough quality and good decisions in the final third, with Anderson’s 21st-minute strike beating Paschalakis for 1-0 to the hosts proving to be the only goal of the game.

The picture at the Toumba was very different. After 20 minutes, Colak’s determination saw him turn a chance that seemed lost into an assist and Zivkovic made it 1-0 with a prodded effort. Just six minutes later…The Leader stepped up. The Danes cleared the ball to the edge of the penalty area, but Vieirinha arrived right on time, controlled the ball beautifully and fired home a thunderous shot to make it 2-0 to PAOK! The Danes pressed and found a goal that sent the match into extra-time, with Hoegue scoring in the 80th minute. The half-hour of extra-time came and went with PAOK dominating, but the hosts wasted two good chances to «lock up» the match and the qualification.

Therefore, it was on to the dreaded penalty shoot-out, with Paschalakis facing this scenario for the first time in his career. As if waiting for it for some time, however, he saved the first penalty, before seeing Colak, Sidcley, Schwab, Mitrita and Kurtić – in that exact order – all do their duty perfectly with determination and a clear mind. The result was Paschalakis celebrating wildly as he enjoyed one of the most exciting nights of his career.

PAOK clinched an intoxicating qualification to the «Round of 16» of the tournament and enjoyed it immensely, since as it should be noted, among other things, the club had never before qualified on penalties in a European match.

The… fall of Gent

Focused on their objective, disciplined and serious, PAOK found the net with a direct free-kick from the usual suspect, Jasmin Kurtic, and beat Gent 1-0 at the Toumba. The result meant the team took an important first step towards qualifying for the «quarter-finals» of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League.

The Double-headed Eagle coped with the opposition’s early attempts to attack, and the home side surprised the Belgians in the second half with two counter-attacks. Then, the breakthrough came in the 58th minute, when the ball was set up outside the area after a foul. It was inviting for Kurtić, who did not miss the chance to score. And so, 1-0 was how it finished, albeit with some concern since Andrija Živkovic and Kurtić would be suspended for the second leg.

As it turned out, of course, the trip to Belgium was a successful one. PAOK traveled without many absentees, but went beyond their limits, «lost» Crespo somewhere along the way, and offered perhaps the most shocking image of the match with the bloodied Vieirinha «fighting» until the very end. And finally, PAOK were happy to celebrate a well-deserved qualification to the last eight of the 2021-22 UEFA Europa Conference League. The final result was a 2-1 away win for PAOK, with goals from Crespo and Douglas Augusto. The players bowed to the travelling fans and drank in all of the nectar of the moment, so ephemeral and so strong in the memory of those who experienced it.

The match started with anxiety on display, but in the 20th minute, after a sustained period of pressure, Crespo gave PAOK the lead with a powerful shot. The hosts responded and were level in the 39th minute with a header from Depoitre. They pressed for another goal, but PAOK held on and ended the half at 1-1. At the break, Crespo limped out injured, the Belgians began strongly, but fortunately they could not manage to find the goal they wanted. In the 67th minute, PAOK’s captain was struck on the head. There was blood, and some dizziness. But those are mere details for Vieirinha, who got patched up with bandages and continued. And in the 78th minute, after a clever combination play, he laid the ball to Augusto, who produced an amazing lofted effort to score and put PAOK 2-1 up. And this is the way it stayed up to the final whistle. A victory against all odds, and a historic qualification.

A hell of a journey

Marseille. The Orange Velodrome. The quarter-finals of a European competition. Laconic and to the point. Nothing less than the biggest challenge in PAOK’s history. Until the next one.

The atmosphere was enthralling. The match again, difficult from the beginning, as in the first half the home team had the upper hand and scored two goals. They opened the scoring in the 13th minute through Gerson. Payet played in the Brazilian midfielder with a threaded pass, and Gerson, who looked to be marginally offside, beat Paschalakis with a powerful shot. After that, Payet was the man who made it 2-0 with an incredible strike at the end of the half.

The second half, however, was a completely different picture with PAOK taking control from the start, with Omar El Kaddouri prompting celebrations and vibrations in the stands where the black and white traveling fans were hosted. A wonderful back-heel from Andrija Zivkovic in the 48th minute put the Moroccan in a shooting position, and Kaddouri scored with a great effort to reduce the deficit to 2-1, seven nights before the return leg “final” at the Toumba.

PAOK’s task in France was a plan with many demands, a plan that had to cover many parameters, primarily for the club’s supporters. It turned out to be a journey of suffering, perseverance, and patience. No one was daunted, the Double-headed Eagle had the drive and motivation that the circumstances required, and carried out an extremely difficult mission in an exemplary manner, enjoying the reactions also from the fans. Above all, it gave hope, optimism, and that sweet anticipation that gives light to our days.

Often, even if it is not made abundantly clear, the story precedes the narrative. One realizes it in hindsight, when one steps back a certain distance – temporal and emotional – from the event. Those seven days of anticipation, that fluttering in the stomach from the morning of April 14th, those hours before, during the match, but mostly, the hours after. The shiver, the numbness, even that effortless snort afterwards, at the «well done» and the «thank you», perhaps it is not possible to recount them as they deserve. You experience these things, and you carry them inside you…

We’ll try, though. Perhaps we cannot avoid exaggeration. Forgive us… And so, PAOK were a joy to behold, they completely dominated the French side, they missed a ton of chances, and they never gave up. However, in the end they did not manage to celebrate the qualification. Even if the match at the Toumba did not start with the best of omens, as Omar El Kaddouri felt some discomfort in the warm-up and left the pitch an inconsolable figure ahead of kick-off.

By the first quarter of an hour, PAOK had already missed three great opportunities through Tsingaras, Crespo and Akpom. A clinical Marseille, however, were the ones who found the opening goal. In the 34th minute, they stole the ball after Guendouzi’s counter-attack following Crespo’s tackle. The former combined well with Payet and he struck to make it 1-0 to the visitors. Of course, this did not deter a spirited PAOK side, who reacted immediately and came close to a goal on three more occasions before half-time. Andrija Zivkovic was unable to find the target in the 39th minute, the ever-present Marseille ‘keeper Mandada stopping Lyratzis in the 41st minute, and Akpom was also unable to score in the 45th minute. The situation was similar in the second half as well, with the top moments being Colak’s one-on-one, Douglas’ shot, and Mitrita’s effort. So close and yet so far, as it turned out, from a goal.

The final verdict? Sixteen goal attempts for PAOK, some incredible chances missed, a Mandada on song on a night he will always remember, a clinical goal for Marseille, and another chance in the 48th minute, and finally the ticket for the semi-final in the hands of the French.

What followed after the final whistle in PAOK’s greatest European adventure, that bittersweet failure of the dream, was clearly one of the Toumba’s finest moments. One that will last forever perhaps.

After all, when you overcome the fear of rejection and failure, recognition then comes. Everything is on the other side of fear, something that never occupies the collective mind of the Double-headed Eagle.

Indeed, then, dear Mr. Lucescu. It was a hell of a journey!