Bitter sweet ending (Part 3)
by Nick Tsambouniaris
Panathinaikos did not have to wait long to exact revenge over PAOK as a full strength team comfortably swept the toothless visitors at Leoforos in the first leg of the semi finals of the Greek Cup by a scoreline of 2-0. Fans were cautious at full time however as it was feared the 2 goal lead may not have been sufficient to take into the second leg. Panagiotis Glykos pulled off an array of fine saves to keep PAOK alive and how valuable they would turn out to be…
The return leg will not be forgotten by Panathinaikos fans for a long time as PAOK ran out 4-0 winners on the day to progress to the Greek Cup Final at the expense of the Trifili. Another chance at silverware was wasted and Panathinaikos fans were left to rue several shocking decisions from the officials, including a dubious red card to Niklas Hult which came at a crucial moment in the game, however PAOK did prove to be more composed. Ouzounidis will rue the missed chances in the first half, most notably from Klonaridis who had a 1 on 1 chance late in the first half. Ouzounidis and the bench had already gotten up to celebrate a massive goal after Dimitris Pelkas had given the home side the lead via an exquisite free kick. The Prasini also had more shots on goal by halftime but simply could not beat Glykos. Another point of debate came when midfielder Villafanez was hit by an explosive when taking a corner. Panathinaikos fans have every right to question why the game was not stopped there, as was the case with Vladan Ivic a few weeks later.
It was feared the fallout of the game would have an adverse effect on the playing group but Ouzounidis again showed his true worth as he was able to create an ‘us against them’ siege mentality in the squad which was visible throughout the playoffs. The club finished the regular season in third spot in the league on 57 points after home wins against Atromitos and Larissa rounded out the season. This was rewarded with a one point head start over AEK and Panionios in the six game mini series.
Captain Zeca was red carded early on in the first game away to Panionios and fans and again begun to fear the worst but Berg delivered with a lovely goal from distance to give the away side the lead. Panionios made the most of the man advantage and scored in the second half but Panathinaikos will feel unlucky not to take all 3 points after Leto had a late shot well saved. It was these types of backs against the wall performances that have endeared Ouzounidis to the Panathinaikos faithful as it is highly unlikely such performances would have been witnessed under Stramaccioni. The ensuing game against PAOK was on course for the tense grudge match it promised to be after goalkeeper Odisseas Vlachodimos was shown another dubious red card when coming out of his box to clear a loose ball and it could be argued the PAOK player was already falling. This was after the Prasini had taken a deserved 1-0 lead and looked set to take a vital win as PAOK again offered little in attack away from home. What happened next was totally inexcusable and arguably cost Panathinaikos a shot at qualifying for the UEFA Champions League. As the home side were cruising a fan threw a beer can at Ivic who did appear to make the most of the situation which led to his team being awarded a 3-0 win on paper. Regardless of Ivic seemingly taking a dive it must be asked what type of fan would throw a can at the opposition manager when their team is winning, let alone at all in the first place. This has no place in our game and is another shocking advertisement of Greek football. Panathinaikos fans rightly feel aggrieved given a similar act occurred against Villafanez only a few weeks earlier with zero punishment in comparison. Berg was also suspended for the four remaining playoff games which left fans with very little hope.
The siege mentality fostered by Ouzounidis certainly shone through in the remaining fixtures as a largely second-string team put up a good fight against AEK but succumbed to a late goal from former player Lazaros Christodoulopoulos. Two successive 1-0 wins over AEK and Panionios at home illustrated the immense fighting spirit in the dressing room, however the pinnacle was beating PAOK 3-2 in the final game at Toumba with little on the line and without the two most influential players Berg and Brazilian rock, Rodrigo Moledo. It is often said that teams are a reflection of their managers and that is certainly the case with this current Panathinaikos team. The wholehearted performances to conclude another largely disappointing season were very much appreciated. In the final game the team was able to bounce back from falling behind twice and the late goal from Molins sparked wild celebrations on the Panathinaikos bench. This demonstrated that the team had learnt its lesson from the previous trip to Toumba. The team will now attempt to qualify for the UEFA Europa League through the third qualifying round.
Going forward it is hoped the club does most of its transfer business early to allow the new arrivals time to settle. In order to challenge on two fronts – domestically and in Europe via the UEFA Europa League, it is evident that serious investment is needed which does look unlikely under the leadership of Alafouzos, regardless of the players identified by Lymberopoulos. Consequently, it will be left to Ouzounidis to make the most of the limited resources at his disposal. The team is now much more organised defensively and has not conceded a goal at Leoforos since the 19th of January which is a testament to Ouzounidis and the back four, superbly marshalled by Moledo. Keeping him and Berg will be the priority, however as a fan you want to see players that want to play for your club and if Moledo wants to return home, the club should not keep an unhappy player. It would be a massive boost if he did want to stay though. Next season the team will start on -2 in the league due to one of the conditions of the punishment which resulted from the beer can throwing incident. Until then there will no doubt be numerous rumours on player movements, both incoming and outgoing, over the off season.