Albion are through to the knockout stages of the Europa League with a game to spare after Joao Pedro’s fifth goal in this season's competition earned Roberto De Zerbi’s battlers a 1-0 win – their third successive victory in Group B.
With a home game against Marseille to come it remains to be seen whether Albion will go through as group winners or runners-up but what cannot be argued is how well Albion have adapted to the European stage since that opening night defeat to AEK.
Albion were a touch fortunate not to concede in the first half when AEK hit the post through Steven Zuber and had other chances.
But having rode their luck they took the lead when Joao clinically converted a penalty he had earned himself after Damian Szymanski brought him down. It was the Brazilian’s fourth successful spot kick in this season’s competition. Majit Gacinovic was sent off for AEK for two yellows midway through the second half and Albion had chances on the break to extend their lead in the closing stages while their game management when AEK roused themselves for a brief late onslaught was impressive.
There had been four changes to the team which had beaten Nottingham Forest. After coming on as a sub at the City Ground Jack Hinshelwood became the youngest English player to start a Europa League match since Jude Bellingham in February 2022 for Dortmund against Rangers.
AEK, who hadn’t beaten an English side at home in Europe since 1976/77, were backed by a noisy full house save for the 1600 Albion fans making a racket of their own and they nearly had a goal to celebrate in the second minute. Kaoru Mitoma’s pass found Evan Ferguson in space and he had two shots blocked, first by keeper Cican Stankovic and then by a covering defender. Lewis Dunk headed the corner across the face of goal but Ferguson couldn’t quite rise to head it into the net.
Stankovic was nearly embarrassed by Domagoj Vida’s stray back pass which had the keeper scrambling to toe-poke it behind for a corner then Simon Adingra cut in from the right but failed to test Stankovic with his shot. Albion would have been pleased with how they had started the game but AEK gradually began to dominate.
Joel Veltman was booked for tugging back Ehsan Hajsafi and it sparked AEK into life. When a free kick was partially cleared Orbelin Pineda’s right-foot volley from 25 yards wasn’t too far wide of the left-hand post before Bart Verbruggen had to deal with Damian Szymanski’s looping header and the increasingly influential Pineda’s curling shot as the home fans cranked up the decibels and their team responded impressively.
On 30 minutes Verbruggen pawed Zuber’s effort from the edge of the box over the bar after Pascal Gross’s pass was cut out. Zuber went even closer when he flicked on the corner but fortunately for Albion it flew just past the far post.
Albion had a brief spell of possession but they were saved by the woodwork a minute before the break. Zuber’s shot took a nick off Dunk and hit the post and Gacinovic couldn’t quite get his positioning right and headed the rebound over. Albion were happy when the referee blew for half-time exactly on 45 minutes.
Nine minutes after the break came the turning point. Verbruggen made a superb save to fist away Gacinovic’s strike after his late run was spotted by Petros Mantalos and moments later Joao was brought down by Damian Szymanski’s clumsy challenge after cutting in from the left. The referee initially waved play on before being directed to the monitor and what followed was never in doubt as Joao coolly sent Stankovic the wrong way from the resultant penalty.
Things got worse for AEK after 65 minutes when Gacinovic stamped on Veltman’s foot and picked up a second yellow card and Albion should have had a second goal in the 72nd minute when Ferguson beat the offside trap after Igor played him in down the left but he tried to go round Stankovic and the keeper got a vital touch away.
AEK were still a threat. Pineda’s angled effort shaved the far post but Dunk was inches away from heading home Pascal Gross’s corner.
There was another nice moment for the academy when Josh Duffus came on to make his debut in the closing stages. The youngster nearly got a second on the break only to fire wide as Albion managed the closing moments with the composure of European veterans.
At the end what is becoming a familiar sight in Europe this season as Roberto De Zerbi led his players to the Albion fans in the far corner. Another unforgettable night with the prospect of more to come!
Albion: Verbruggen, Hinshelwood, Veltman, Dunk, Igor Julio, Adingra, Gross, Gilmour (Duffus 87), Mitoma (Dahoud 68), Joao Pedro (Milner 76), Ferguson (Baleba 87).
Subs not used: Steele (GK), Buonanotte, McGill (GK), Hinchy, Chouchane, Kavanagh, Jackson, Duffus.
Referee: Sandro Scharer (Switzerland)