From the famous five to the dynamic duo

From the famous five to the dynamic duo

by Graham Wood

And then there were two. So that’s that. Greece will have just two teams (yes that’s two) representing the country in European competitions this season.

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Having started out in early summer in optimistic mood with five teams in the qualifying stages of the Champions League and Europa League in Olympiacos, AEK Athens, Panathinaikos, PAOK Thessaloniki and Panionios, only and Besnik Hasi’s SuperLeague champions and the Kitrinomavri have made it.

Following Olympiacos’ qualification for the Champions League group stages after seeing off Croatian outfit Rijeka earlier this week, an eventful night of Europa League playoff action on Thursday ended with AEK emphatically going through while PAOK and Panathinaikos fell by the wayside. Panionios had already went out to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the third qualifying round.

The Greens’ exit at the hands of Spanish club Athletic Bilbao was expected. Marinos Ouzounidis’ side had an impossible task in the second leg after losing 3-2 at home in the first leg following six-minutes of madness at Leoforos when they went from being 2-0 ahead to 3-2 behind, PAOK’s demise was both unexpected and extremely embarrassing. Not just for PAOK fans, but for Greek football.

Razvan Lucescu’s team, who had showed desire and passion to come back from a goal down to win 3-1 in the first leg against little-known Swedish outfit Ostersund, were a shadow of themselves as they lost 2-0 in Sweden, going out on away goals in humiliating fashion after the tie ended 3-3 on aggregate.

Media hail AEK, lament “black page” for PAOK

Not surprisingly, Greece’s fervent sports media went into overdrive on Friday, heaping praise on AEK for their emphatic 3-0 victory over Club Brugge which sent Manolo Jimenez’s team through, while there were harsh for PAOK and to a lesser extend for Panathinaikos following their meek exits.

“Where Eagles Dare” was the emphatic headline on Live Sport’s front page, with the paper gushing in its praise of AEK’s impressive second leg win at the Olympic Stadium which saw the club return to Europe in glorious fashion.

“ΑΕΚ’s battlers made light work of Brugge to progress to the group stages of the Europa League…on this form they can challenge for the title,” it declared.

“Magic!”, said SportDay, adding: “A great performance from each and every AEK player.”
PAOK fans were looking for places to hide as the internet banter went to town on the Salonica club. Let’s make no bones about it, PAOK should be hauled in front of the police because their elimination is criminal.

With a 3-1 lead from the first leg and 20 minutes to go in the second leg with the score at 0-0, they needed to show the discipline and composure to see the game out. And they didn’t. It’s as simple as that.

“PAOK throw their qualification into the rubbish” screamed Live Sport, “Disgrace!”, declared Sportime, while SportDay labelled the defeat “A black Page for PAOK”. Indeed, the elimination from Europe is a crushing blow to the club’s ambitions for the new season and Lucescu will have to regroup his players and hope that he can engineer a genuine SuperLeague title challenge to offset this huge disappointment.

Panathinaikos will have exactly the same intentions in mind after a 1-0 loss to Bilbao in Spain saw them exit the competition 4-2 on aggregate. As mentioned, however, the damage was already done in the first leg.

A positive point for the Greens was the display of Argentine forward Andres Chavez, who hit the post in the first half and generally showed promising flashes of what he is capable of. The scars left by the unexpected departure of talismanic Sweden striker Marcus Berg in the summer are still raw, but perhaps Chavez can help the healing process.

Group of death for Olympiacos, AEK to face AC Milan

There would have been plenty of gasps in Piraeus when the Champions League draw put Olympiacos in Group D with current European Champions Juventus, Barcelona and Sporting Lisbon, but I’m pretty sure the players will be relishing the prospect. After all, isn’t that the aim of qualifying for the lucrative group stage – to play against the best?

The AEK camp have been making understandable positive noises in the wake of the draw for the Europa League group stage which paired them with AC Milan, Austria Vienna and Rijeka, who were beaten by Olympiacos in the Champions League playoff.

Jimenez has already said he will be showing his players the video of AEK’s 1-0 home win over Milan from the 2006 Champions League group stage to inspire them. It’s fair to say that the current team could use a bit of the spirit and skill of that team.

So yes, there is widespread disappointment that only two of Greece’s five teams have made it to the group stages, because that means less coefficient points. But let’s focus on getting behind the two teams who have qualified and look forward to some magical European nights ahead.

Bring on the group stage!

by Graham Wood
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