The Ouzounidis era (Part 2)
by Nick Tsambouniaris
Nick Tsambouniaris takes a look at Panathinaikos' season in his second of a three part piece. Part one can be found here.
Former player Marinos Ouzounidis was the man chosen to replace Andrea Stramaccioni. It was hoped his appointment would bring about more spirited performances along with the development of young Greek talent. The Ouzounidis era started brightly with a scrappy but hard-fought win over PAOK at Leoforos via a Robin Lod goal from outside the box. In addition to the managerial change, another former player, Nikos Lymberopoulos, replaced Gilberto Silva as technical director. Initially the team was much sounder defensively and more effort was shown in general but star striker Marcus Berg was finding goals hard to come by and as a result the club went on a poor three game streak of draws to Kerkyra, Levadiakos and PAS Giannina. This could also be attributed to the new coach finding his feet and needing time to run the rule over certain players. Coulibaly, M’Poku and Wakaso (later loaned out to Granada) represented their respective nations at the AFCON which put a further strain on the depth of the playing roster. Former Greece U21 representative Dimitris Kourbelis was signed from Asteras Tripoli along with former Swedish international journeyman striker Guillermo Molins on a free transfer, and former player Viktor Klonaridis on loan from Lens with an option to buy.
The Prasini also had the knockout stages of the Greek Cup to look forward to in the second half of the season, however a huge amount of luck was needed. The team showed tremendous resilience in the final group stage game as they went 2-0 down to high flying Football League outfit Apollon Smyrni but rallied to win an exciting game 4-3. The Trifili finished second in the group rather fortuitously ahead of an unlucky Iraklis since they had scored more goals as it was the criteria that applied over goal difference. By this stage the club had already waved goodbye to yet another failed European campaign which resulted in a paltry 1 point from 6 games.
A 4-0 demolition of Panetolikos at home on February 12 was the tonic the club needed for an improved second half of the season. This was followed up by a 5-0 annihilation of struggling Asteras Tripoli and another 5-0 win over Veria. Marcus Berg was now scoring for fun and the team finally looked settled. The influence of Ouzounidis was by now clearly evident and the team was more defensively sound and attackers such as Klonaridis with his direct running, Villafanez with his silky skills, and M’Poku with a mean shot were now given more freedom in a 4-2-3-1 formation behind Berg. Panathinaikos also thrashed Football League club Kissamikos 7-0 on aggregate and Asteras Tripoli 5-0 on aggregate in the Greek Cup to set up two highly anticipated semi final legs against PAOK.
Panathinaikos fans that were long calling for the development of Greek talent finally had their calls answered as several academy youngsters were given opportunities in the first team at the expense of Stramaccioni’s “mercenaries”, many of whom had departed the club themselves. The emergence of exciting, young midfielder Tasos Chatzigiovannis, reliable centre back Stefanos Evangelou, Sotiris-Pantelis Pispas, Paschalis Staikos and Theodoros Mingos gave fans a glimpse into the future. Chatzigiovannis went on to make further appearances in the first team, and not only in dead rubber cup ties, as did Evangelou, both of whom showed maturity beyond their years.
Dropped points to Xanthi (again) and relegation threatened Iraklis only served to reinforce the limited resources Ouzounidis had at his disposal as the lack of depth in the squad cost the team valuable points. The Prasini then faced Olympiacos, AEK, Panionios and PAOK all in succession which would go a long way in determining the points allocation for the playoffs to determine European places. This tough run got off to the best possible start as the team easily accounted for Olympiacos in the Derby of Eternal Enemies that was as equally as one sided as the first meeting of the season, only in the opposite direction. Admittedly it was the ideal time to face Olympiacos as they were reeling from their UEFA Europa League form on a short turnaround and had issues of their own. The fact that Panathinaikos fans were left pondering at full time how their team did not win by more summed up the match. Marcus Berg scored the only goal of the game with an expertly taken volley just from just outside the box in the first half. A combination of poor finishing and some stunning saves from Stefanos Kapino prevented further goals.
The week after the international break seemed to help as the club beat AEK 3-2 at OAKA in a pulsating Athens Derby. The game was played at a fast pace and both sides had chances to win it. Panathinaikos raced out to a two goal lead inside the opening 30 minutes as Berg was at his imperious best, scoring one and setting up another. AEK dug deep in the second half to make it 2-2, but the Prasini had the final say in one of the most entertaining derbies in recent memory as Berg scored the winning goal in the final minute by beating his marker to finish off a quick counterattack. This was in stark contrast to the dull and lifeless meeting between these two sides only a few of months earlier. Again the “never say die” attitude Ouzounidis had instilled in the team was evident. This was also AEK’s first loss under their new manager.
A hard fought 1-0 win over Panionios at home was followed up by a humbling 3-0 loss to PAOK at Toumba. By now attention had turned to the Greek Cup as Ouzounidis opted to rotate his squad.