Spectacular PAOK fly off to group stage
Football is simple when everything falls into place. Just as PAOK did on Thursday, led by a majestic Róbert Mak. The “Double-Headed Eagle” thrashed Brøndby IF and are all but assured of a place in the UEFA Europa League group stage.
As in previous qualifying encounters, Igor Tudor opted for this 3-4-3 that turns to 4-3-3 when PAOK defend, with one of the two full-wings returning to full-back.
With their incessant passing and through-balls from midfield to the back of Brøndby IF’s defence, PAOK made an effort to make the most of Róbert Mak’s and Garry Rodrigues’ pace. The two players were in advantage next to the tall frames of Albrechtsen and Agger and created numerous problems to the Danish side, forcing Thomas Frank to change his tactics before the interval.
The Danish side were worried about Thessaloniki’s high temperatures and trained with jackets and hats to adjust. However it became evident that heat was the least of the problems for Brøndby IF, as they were dismanted by the passionate and dynamic side built by Igor Tudor.
Despite the absences of Stefanos Athanasiadis Giorgos Tzavellas, Giannis Skondras and Charis Charisis and the fact that Jairo, Gojko Cimirot, Terry Antonis, Marin Leovacand Eric Sabo were not eligible, PAOK quickly proved on the pitch which was the better side.
PAOK made their first step towards qualifying to the UEFA Europa League group stage thanks to a blistering first half, during which they scored two astonishing goals, had a shot on woodwork with Ergys Kace and two huge chances to increase their lead. After the interval, they scored their third goal early on and then handled their lead superbly managing to make it 5-0.
“I am ready and there are no excuses”, Brøndby IF’s leader Daniel Agger said on the eve of the encounter. But there were no excuses for the nutmeg Dimitris Pelkas subjected him to in the opening goal sequence.
When watching Premier League matches during his PAOK academy days, the young midfielder of the “Double-Headed Eagle” could hardly have imagined that one day he would nutmeg his way past the then centre-back of Liverpool FC leaving him lying on the pitch.
He did it though and the ball reached Róbert Mak, who also broke free of Albrechtsen and scored the opener with a neat finish –making it up for his sloppy efforts in the previous round.
Igor Tudor has been repeating again and again that he wants his players to press their rivals relentlessly. As Róbert Mak did in the play that led to the second goal. That was the tactical part. The finish however was pure art.
DImitris Pelkas saw Brøndby IF goalkeeper standing a few feet away from his goal and didn’t need to think twice. His delicious right-foot lob flew to the top of the net. After clinching the MVP of July award, Pelkas has now a legitimate case to earn the Best Goal of August as well.
He came close to scoring in the 6th minute, when his shot was cleared by Brøndby IF defenders off the line. But he did eventually net PAOK’s third, following a brilliant move by Mak. Garry Rodrigues had a memorable debut in Toumba Stadium and capped it with a goal.
The attacking midfielder from Cape Verde joined PAOK without having gone through preseason training. He worked hard on his personalised program on the days prior to the Brøndby IF match and handed Igor Tudor with an extra option. He ran a lot, engaged in several duels and made a promising start ahead of the season.
In all encounters so far, PAOK have been playing without a clear-cut central forward due to Stefanos Athanasiadis’s injury. Róbert Mak was called to fill that void.
The Slovakian player had already netted three goals in previous matches, but scoring the easy ones was not his main asset. He would compensate by displaying other elements, such as pressing and carving out goalscoring chances for his teammates.
He eventually became a false nine for PAOK, but he owed –especially to himself- a grand performance. And he did just that on Thursday evening.
He netted a hat-trick, created the second goal and teed-up Rodrigues for the third. Tudor could not have asked for more.
PΑΟΚ: Olsen, Malezas, Vítor, Costa, Konstantinidis (Korovesis 84΄), Kitsiou, Tziolis, Mak, Rodrigues (Mystakidis 72΄), Pelkas (Κ.Savvidis 66΄), Kace.
Brøndby IF: Rønnow, Albrechtsen, Holst (Dumić 42΄), Larsson, Durmisi, Agger, Ørnskov, Phiri (Nørgaard 75΄), Pukki, Eriksson, Elmander (Schwartz 58΄).