AEK'S games with Celtic for the third qualifying round of the Champions League are the peak in the trajectory that saw the popular Athens club climb from the third division to the league title and the doorstep of Europe’s top competition within five seasons. A Greek fairy tale, with an unknown-as-yet ending.

After 24 years of suffering, AEK managed to win back the Greek league title last year, get to within two steps of the Champions League group stage, and start getting their demolished home ground reconstructed as a state-of-the art stadium to be ready in the next couple of years. Celtic’s opponent, that traces its roots to a club in the then Constantinople, present-day Istanbul in Turkey, is going through a regeneration.

The successful late 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a long and gruelling period, with only the odd Greek Cup win and some significant victories in Europe, not least against Scottish clubs such as Rangers, Hibernian, Hearts and Dundee United. Yet the title with the automatic qualification to the Champions League group stage that came with it proved elusive.

After losing the title in 2008 to Olympiakos due to a court decision in the Piraeus club’s favor, it got all downhill for the Yellows: the club’s financial problems grew amid the Greek economic crisis, national austerity measures contributed in the reduction of fan turnout and revenues, and no investor would buy into a club that had demolished its own home stadium early last decade in the hope of having a new one financed by the government.

Disaster struck in 2013, when the club finished second-bottom and got relegated to the second division. Player contracts were impossible to afford given the second-tier’s revenues, so AEK decided to restart from the bottom in a similar manner to Rangers earlier this decade, by dropping to the third tier of the Greek game.

Predictably but not easily, AEK topped the third division in 2014 and climbed to the second, which it topped again in 2015 to return to the Super League. From their first season back at the top flight they won the Greek Cup and finished third in the league, and in 2017/18 the “Double-Headed Eagle” won its 12th league title.

AEK stalwart Dimitris Melissanidis reclaimed the club’s reins in 2015 and followed a rather stringent financial policy, focusing instead on having the club’s stadium reconstructed. This has now have paid off. Construction work has now begun for a new stadium at Nea Philadelphia, north of Athens city centre, at the club’s heartland, while the club is the reigning champion, making 2018 a year to remember for AEK supporters, despite the Cup final defeat to PAOK.

Even so, the 2018/19 pre-season has been fairly turbulent for the Athens club. Fans were sorry to see the architect of the league triumph, manager Manolo Jimenez, choose a return to Spain and to second-division club Las Palmas.

The Spanish coach has taken along Sergio Araujo, who already belonged to Las Palmas and spent the last year and a half at AEK on loan. Also the most valuable Greek player of the club, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, has controversially swapped AEK for arch-rival Olympiakos in a case that has ended up in court. Bosnian defender Ognjen Vranjes and Swedish midfielder Jakob Johansson also left.

All this led to the first worries among the AEK support, which for now have been contained. Battle-hardened manager of crosstown rivals Panathinaikos, Marinos Ouzounidis, was hired to replace Jimenez.

After buying out striker Marko Livaja who had graced the title-winning team on a loan basis, AEK made some more notable additions to their roster: Vranjes has been replaced by Marios Economou, who previously played for Bologna, and three young Latin American stars were added to the club’s roster, in Lucas Boye (a 22-year-old forward from Torino), Ezequiel Ponce (a 21-year-old striker from Roma) and 23-year-old Brazilian midfielder Alef from Sporting Braga.

AEK’s firing power went missing at pre-season, scoring no goals at all in the friendlies in Poland and Athens, except in dress rehearsal for the matches against Celtic, when AEK beat Turkey’s Galatasaray 3-2 at home. Still, with the addition of Boye, Ponce and Alef to the acclaimed figures of Petros Mantalos, Livaja, Tasos Bakasetas and Victor Klonaridis, AEK seem capable of threatening any defence.

Yet their weak spot remains in defending set-pieces, where both Galatasaray goals came from last week, a problem noted since last season. There’s something for Celtic to exploit.