With Sean Maguire and Kevin O’Connor making their final appearance at Turner’s Cross before their move to Preston North End, there was to be no fairytale ending for the pair but Cork boss John Caulfield will have seen enough to know that his side are certainly not out of this tie yet.
AEK were the better side and technically a lot more gifted but Maguire and O’Connor will be available for next week’s second leg in Cyprus before they head off to Deepdale.
Maguire did have the AEK defence looking worried at times and Caulfield will be quietly confident of scoring next week if his side play to their full potential.
“It’s a disappointing night for us,” said Caulfield. “The frustrating thing for us was they were going down so easily... but in saying that, we gave away a sloppy goal from a corner.”
Caulfield made only one change to the side that defeated Estonians Levadia Tallinn in the previous round last week with Steven Beattie replacing Jimmy Keohane, who had to make do with a place on the bench.
Alan Bennett still hasn’t recovered from injury, which meant Conor McCormack partnered Ryan Delaney at the heart of the back four with Greg Bolger captaining the side.
AEK have had a distinctly Spanish look to their side in recent years. This has continued since Imanol Idiakez took over the reigns last season, and Idiakez started with five of his fellow countrymen last night.
The visitors had only two Cypriots in the starting XI, with two Macedonians, a Dutch man and French striker completing a multi-cultural and experienced line up.
AEK have been runners-up in Cyprus for the past three seasons. And with one of the meanest defences in the Cypriot league and one of the top scoring teams, it was always going to be a step up from Levadia for Caulfield’s side.
Idiakez promised his side would attack in search of an away goal and City looked a bit surprised at the pace and movement of the Spaniard’s side from the start.
Caulfield’s side stood off the Cypriots early on and ‘keeper Mark McNulty had to make a great save as early as the fifth minute when he was quick off his line to deny Florian Taulemesse.
Maguire whipped in a superb cross in the 14th minute, which Joan Truyois did very well to put behind for a corner. This seemed to spark the home side to life as they forced three corners in quick succession, which had AEK on the back foot for the first time.
McNulty was forced into another save shortly afterwards when he gathered Jorge Larena’s shot at the second attempt before Taulemesse caught the keeper with a very late challenge for which he was duly booked for by French referee Francois Letexier.
Macedonian international Ivan Trickovski was AEK’s top scorer last season and he looked dangerous in his role just off French striker Taulemesse, who scored twice in the last round against Lincoln Red Imps.
Watched by new Preston manager Alex Neil and the rest of the Preston squad, who are training in nearby Fota Island this week, Maguire looked dangerous anytime he got the ball in the first half and had the AEK defenders worried with his pace.
Stephen Dooley hacked the ball off the line at the start of the second half as AEK won an early corner but City began to look more of a threat despite frustration with AEK players going down very easily.
Caulfield introduced new signing Kieran Sadlier for Dooley just after the hour mark as he looked for a way to feed a starved Maguire.
Beattie came to his side’s rescue when he cleared Hector Hevel’s dangerous cross off the line at the second attempt in the 69th minute. But the City goal didn’t remain intact for much longer as Joan Truyois found himself with space in the box to rifle home the bouncing ball as City failed to deal with the resulting corner kick.
Caulfield brought on French striker Achille Campion after the goal as he went with two up top and City did begin to throw more men forward in search of a precious equaliser.
However with the away goal in the bag, the Cypriots looked happy with what they had and Idiakez brought on his three substitutes as he looked to see out the game.
Beattie blazed over from the edge of the box before Maguire had a chance in injury time and looked like he could have won a penalty if he went down under Daniel Mojsov’s challenge but choose to stay on his feet and Mojsov got up to deflect Maguire’s shot out for a corner.
“Obviously it’s disappointing,” O’Connor told eirSport. “We didnt’ get the result we wanted. We came out and threw everything at them, we just coudn’t find that opening to get the goal but we can be proud of what we did. There’s still another leg to go, there’s still another leg to go. We’ll go over there full of confidence we know we can get a goal back.”
McNulty; Beattie, Delaney, McCormack, O’Connor; Sheppard (Griffin 78), Bolger (Campion 75) , Buckley, Morrissey, Dooley (Sadlier 62); Maguire.
Pablo; Truyols, Mojsov, Catala; Hevel, Larena (Rousias 90), Laban, Tomas (Tete 77), Antoniades; Trickovski; (Boljevic 84) Taulemesse.
Francois Letexier (France)