Albion’s first match in the Europa League ended in disappointment after a late goal by substitute Ezequiel Ponce earned AEK Athens victory in a pulsating Group B opener.
Without being at their very best, Albion twice came from behind thanks to two expertly-taken penalties by Joao Pedro after Djibril Sidibe and Mijat Gacinovic gave AEK a 2-1 half-time lead.
A crucial save from Cican Stankovic denied Pedro his hat-trick before Ponce pounced. It was a sobering introduction to football at elite European level for Roberto De Zerbi’s team, although there are five more games to make an impression.
Albion made seven changes to the side which won 3-1 against Manchester United on Saturday. Injury ruled out Lewis Dunk so Pascal Gross captained and two players, Igor Julio and Ansu Fati, made their full debuts. James Milner became the first player to play in European competition for five different clubs.
The stadium was rocking at kick-off as a full house revelled in a special atmosphere on a special night for the club, but 1500 AEK fans were celebrating after 11 minutes. From a corner Sidibe made an unchallenged run from the D and powered a free header from 15 yards into the top corner.
Steele rescued Albion two minutes later when he smothered Levi Garcia’s effort and midway through the half Garcia’s movement took him away from Igor Julio but he stabbed his shot wide. Another warning for Albion.
The hosts stirred and Stankovic made his first save to keep out Joao Pedro’s angled effort before Igor guided a free header from his fellow Brazilian's cross wide of goal. Albion had momentum and when Ehsan Hajsafi tripped Joao Pedro in the box, the referee awarded a penalty having initially booked the forward for diving. He calmly rolled the penalty into the bottom corner with half an hour played.
Albion seemed to be in the ascendancy, but AEK regained the lead on 41 minutes. Orbelin Pineda’s free kick from deep on the left dropped on the edge of a crowded six-yard box and Gacinovic got a great touch to guide it past Steele into the bottom corner.
There was a lengthy delay after Ehsan Hajsafi was stretchered off before Albion were awarded a second penalty on 66 minutes. Again, the referee missed Damian Szymanski’s hack that felled Joao Pedro before changing his mind after a visit to the monitor. And again, the Brazilian sent Stankovic the wrong way from the spot to make it 2-2.
The momentum seemed to be swinging Albion’s way. Kaoru Mitoma’s drive after a lovely move was blocked and Joao Pedro should have been taking home the match ball when Jan Paul van Hecke’s through ball found him in on goal, but he took the shot early and Stankovic blocked it with his legs.
Instead, Albion were rocked again when AEK went back in front with six minutes to go. A long diagonal gave the visitors a 2 v 2 situation, Niclas Eliasson squared it to fellow sub Ponce and his shot had just enough power to beat Steele.
Thirteen added minutes gave Albion hope and Stankovic produced a fine tip-over to deny substitute Simon Adingra before Pervis Estupinan headed onto the roof of the net. Albion kept pushing but couldn’t find a way through a yellow-shirted wall for a third time.
Albion: Steele, Milner (Lamptey 55), van Hecke, Igor Julio, Estupinan; March, Gross, Gilmour (Buonanotte 86), Mitoma (Adingra 86); Fati; Joao Pedro (Welbeck 82).
Substitutes not used: Verbruggen, McGill, Webster, Dahoud, Lallana, Baleba, Veltman, Hinshelwood.
Referee: Kristo Tohver (Estonia).