RECAP: EUROPA LEAGUE ACTION
Sacha Kljestan helped Anderlecht to a vital victory over AEK for his first appearance in two months, while Jozy Altidore saw substitute action in the dying minutes of Villarreal's win over PAOK.
RSC Anderlecht 3 - 0 AEK Athens
Sacha Kljestan made the most of his first outing for Anderlecht since late-August, regularly troubling AEK Athens' defense and setting up his team's opening goal as they picked up all three points for the home crowd.
A rash of injuries and faltering play in domestic competition tipped head coach AriŽl Jacobs's hand to hand the American his first playing time in exactly two months.
His decision looked as though it would pay dividends early on when Kljestan forced AEK keeper Diego Saja into a save in the fourth minute with a troubling long-range blast.
Another attempt by the former Chivas USA man led to Anderlecht's opening score two minutes past the half-hour mark, as Saja knocked Kljestan's shot directly into the path of Mbark Boussoufa for the easy rebound score.
The game remained a largely low-chance affair, with both teams managing only to waste their rare scoring opportunities, until the hosts put it out of reach in a five minutes span late in the second half.
Boussoufa supplied striking prodigy Romelu Lukaku with a cross which the youngster put away with a low shot from the edge of the area in the 71st minute, then he again played provider, setting up Roland Juhasz for a headed goal with a long free kick five minutes later.
Thoroughly beaten, the Greek team barely made any forays towards Silvio Aliaj Proto's goal in the last quarter-hour, with Anderlecht holding the scoreline for the important win.
The win pulls Anderlecht into a three-way tie in second place with Hajduk Split and AEK on three points each, with the Belgian champions ahead of the others by superior goal differential.
They will head south to Athens in two weeks for a game in which the Greek team will be eager for some measure of revenge, but first will try to stop their skid in league play on Sunday when they host KVC Westerlo.
Villarreal CF 1 - 0 PAOK Thessaloniki
Jozy Altidore saw time on the field as a late second-half substitute, coming on in the final ten minutes for goalscorer Marco Ruben as the Yellow Submarine took care of business at home in their tight win over PAOK Thessaloniki.
Knowing a win would in all likelihood send his team to the top of Group D, Villarreal coach Juan Carlos Garrido sent out as strong of a lineup as possible, with Altidore initially on the bench to be used for a late impact on the game
Familiar with the dangerous weapons at the hands of their opponents, PAOK played strong defense in the opening minutes and did a fine job of keeping Villarreal from creating any true danger.
They were, however, powerless to stop the hosts from getting onto the scoreboard in the 38th minute as Guiseppe Rossi picked out striking partner Marco Ruben on the right side of the penalty area for a low blast just inside the far post.
The hosts held the advantage throughout the contest, however were frustrated in their attempts to add to the lead, giving the Greeks a slight hope of sneaking an equalizer.
Altidore was brought on for the goalscorer Ruben with eight minutes left and had a chance in the dying seconds to add a second to Villarreal's total, but his shot was easily saved by PAOK keeper Dario Kresic.
The win takes The Yellow Submarine to the top of Group D on six points, now two ahead of second-place battlers PAOK and Dinamo Zagreb. They visit the Greek team in two weeks in a game which could practically wrap up a berth in the knockout round, however first host Atletico Madrid on Sunday in La Liga play.
Freddy Adu was not a factor as Aris kept the Group B standings tight with a scoreless draw in Thessaloniki against leaders Bayern Leverkusen.