Hope left in the UEFA Cup

With three Greek clubs, AEK, Panathinaikos and PAOK, all through to the UEFA Cup’s third round and aspiring to advance further, interest continues to exist for local fans in European club-level competition this season. Greek champion Olympiakos bowed out of the Champions League early yet again. Despite winning the last six domestic titles, Olympiakos not only failed to advance to the lucrative competition’s second phase, but ended last in its group to miss out on a third-round UEFA Cup berth, which comes as consolation for teams that take third place in the Champions League’s first phase of group play. In its first Champions League appearance in eight years, AEK, placed in a tough group that included Real Madrid and Roma, remained undefeated with six draws from six games for third place and its UEFA Cup berth. In its third-round UEFA Cup match, AEK will meet Maccabi Haifa, the Israeli side that humbled Olympiakos by depriving it of third place in their Champions League group. The first leg will be played in Athens on November 28 before the two sides clash again a fortnight later, on December 12, either in Cyprus, Bulgaria, or Italy, for security reasons. (These dates apply for all 16 UEFA Cup third-round ties.) Maccabi Haifa, the first Israeli club to qualify for the Champions League, played all its home games in this competition in Cyprus. Though the club was founded nearly 90 years ago, Maccabi Haifa began emerging as a force in Israeli soccer only two decades ago. The team has won Israel’s past two league titles, and, in 1999, reached the quarterfinals of the European Cup Winners Cup. The show of strength against Turkey’s Fenerbahce in the UEFA Cup’s second round proved, once again, that Panathinaikos feels very much at home in European club-level competition. The Greek team, which has been this country’s most consistent performer beyond the local frontier, will now meet the Czech Republic’s Slovan Liberec. At last Friday’s UEFA Cup draw in Geneva, Panathinaikos was drawn as the home side for the tie’s first leg, but officials at UEFA, the sport’s governing body in Europe, switched the draw’s result to avoid two coinciding games in Athens on November 28, when AEK also meets Maccabi Haifa. To reach the competition’s third round, Slovan Liberec eliminated Georgian team Dinamo Tbilisi in its first-round match with two wins, and, then England’s Ipswich in a far tighter contest that was resolved through a penalty kick-out. Slovan Liberec is currently fourth in its domestic league with a 7-2-4 record. PAOK will also face a Czech team, Slavia Prague, first up at home in Thessaloniki, followed by Prague’s decider. Slavia Prague, currently second in the Czech Republic’s league and last year’s cup winner at home, is known here after recent games against OFI and Panathinaikos. Last year, the Czech side lost twice to Panathinaikos, 2-1 and 1-0, in a Champions League third-round qualifier. In the previous round, Slavia Prague rebounded from a 3-1 loss against Partizan in Belgrade to overwhelm its opponent 5-1 on the return leg.

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