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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 30 July 2016
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 30 JULY 2016 25 SPORT It’s off to Europe they go As yet another season of European football begins, we take a look at the Greek representatives at this year’s Champions League and Europa League competitions Kostas Fortounis PHOTO: OLYMPIACOS-BLOG.BLOGSPOT.COM GERARD PAPASIMAKOPOULOS The Karaiskaki stadium echoed with boos at full whistle on Wednesday night as the Olympiakos players dragged their feet towards the changing rooms. A 0-0 home draw with a tough but unspectacular side like Hapoel BeerSheva leaves the Greek champions with a tricky away leg in Israel to navigate, with their presence in the Champions League group stage at risk for the first time in years. It's been a surprisingly quiet summer for the perennial Greek champions and the atmosphere around the Piraeus side is certainly not one you would instantly associate with top-dog swagger. While a win or score draw in the away leg against Barak Bakhar's side could still see them make it to the Champions League, it seems like all is not well at Olympiakos. Incoming manager Victor Sanchez is still struggling to connect with his squad and especially with match-winning playmaker Kostas Fortounis and that lack of click-and-go certainly showed in Wednesday's lackluster performance. New signings Diogo Figueiras and Alberto de la Bella at right and left back respectively, seem to offer little attacking verve, with Figueiras especially already on shaky ground. Olympiakos is still looking to strengthen the squad and will probably sign a central defender, as well as a striker, but by the time any further transfer dealings are finalised, Olympiakos could be nursing a Europa League hangover. And may be looking for a new coach. A day earlier, PAOK offered a very different picture. Rightfully viewed as underdogs in their two-leg clash with Ajax, the boys from Salonika took the lead through a brilliant Djalma Campos goal, who danced past the Dutch defence and scored from an impossible angle, before the home side drew level. PAOK, who have slowly but surely become a far more solid and assured side since Vladan Ivic took over as manager, will now bring the tie back to the Touba stadium, hoping to vanquish the historic Dutch side with the help of their always fiery support. Ivic seems to be constructing a side that will rely heavily on livewire duo Campos and Garry Rordiguez, two lightning-fast wingers that are as exciting as they are unpredictable, though significant doubts continue to hang over the team's centre of defence, which remains unconvincing. Both Panathinaikos and AEK Athens entered the European fray on Thursday expecting a positive return to the continental footballing arena. Panathinaikos, who were at one time a fine representative of Greek football on the continent, have struggled over recent years and after last season's nightmare exit to Azerbaijani side Gabala in the qualifying stages of the Europa League will certainly look to bounce back with some attacking verve. Italian coach Andrea Stramaccioni has orchestrated a significant overhaul, with very little now left of the side that crashed out of Europe last term. Leading marksman Marcus Berg will certainly have more support this season, with the star signing of Victor Ibarbo, Sebastian Leto, Mubarak Wakaso, and Lucas Villafanez, all offering creative and scoring options. It will definitely be a make-orbreak season for Stramaccioni, who quietly surfed past terrace mumblings and strong journalistic criticism last season for some pretty uninspired and mostly toothless football, but qualification to the Europa League group stage will be vital if he expects to still be on the Panathinaikos bench after September. AEK Athens are just happy to be back. After three nightmarish seasons, that saw them drop out of the Superleague and tumble all the way down to the third division before clawing their way back to the top, the Athenian side have completed quite the comeback. Their cup run last season saw them march all the way to the final where they shot down Olympiakos with surprising ease and booked their ticket for the Europa League qualifiers. New coach Timuri Ketsbaia certainly knows his way around having been part of the free-flowing AEK side that won the team's last Greek championship and brings with him a reputation for being a no-nonsense coach who is never afraid to speak his mind. Tactically more astute than both Traianos Dellas and Gustavo Poyet who held the manager's position before him, Ketsbaia is straight in at the deep end, as he faces St Etienne, a French side that is perhaps not the worst draw AEK could have had at this stage, but is nevertheless the favourite to progress over two legs. With very little European experience flowing in this AEK side, Ketsbaia will look to exShakhtar Donetsk stalwart Dmytro Chygrynskiy to provide defensive steel and hope for a positive result in the away leg, before returning to the Olympic Stadium, where he will look to unleash new signing Hugo Almeida on the French defence, counting on his brutish frame to provide the goals that could see AEK through. Last but not least, let's not forget PAS Giannina, who scraped past Odds BK with a vital extra time goal in the away leg and who must now face an even bigger test in the shape of AZ Alkmaar. The Dutch side are of course massive favourites, but the team from Giannina have absolutely nothing to lose. This is their first ever European adventure and they know full well that the pressure is all on the Alkmaar men. Quite a few experts had already counted them out before the two legs against Odd had been played, so you never know. This underdog has quite a sharp bite.
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