Perennial soccer rivals prepare for Sunday’s decisive encounter

Occupying the league’s top two spots and separated by a three-point gap, perennial soccer rivals Olympiakos and Panathinaikos do battle this Sunday in an encounter that could weigh heavily on this season’s title race. In the lead-up to the clash, to be played at Panathinaikos’s Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium, Olympiakos was the first to report bad news. Key midfielder Christian Karembeu incurred a calf muscle injury during yesterday’s training session and will miss Sunday’s derby. Club physicians expect the former French international to be sidelined for a month. The news did nothing to alleviate the mood at Panathinaikos which will be seeking victory to join the defending champion in the top spot. Defeat would put the side an unsettling six points behind the current league leader. During training at Panathinaikos yesterday, there were no signs of any possible changes to strategy as a result of Karembeu’s injury. Coach Sergio Markarian is expected to take the risk and field a 4-4-2 lineup in search of the victory’s three points, instead of the more defensive 3-5-2 system. Whatever the case, the intentions of Markarian, whose team remains undefeated since his return to the club nine rounds ago – following a brief tenure with Panathinaikos last season – should become clearer during today’s training session. «We’re prepared for victory and will give our souls to achieve this. We need to pressure Olympiakos’s defense, control the midfield, and play strongly,» Danish international midfielder Jan Mikaelsen told local radio station Athina 98.4 FM. «The derby will determine the title race. Its result will be important for morale,» he added. Though club officials at Olympiakos widely expected coach Srecko Katanec to consider Ilias Poursanidis as Karembeu’s replacement, the Slovenian surprised yesterday’s training session by trying out a neglected roster member, Brazilian defender Edu Drasena. Karembeu’s replacement could be disclosed at a news conference with Katanec scheduled for this afternoon. Olympiakos held its annual New Year’s ceremony at a major Athenian hotel yesterday. No official comments regarding Sunday’s match were disclosed to reporters, but the club’s coach did not refrain from asking for victory from his players during the social occasion. Two players, Par Zetterberg and Peter Oforiquaye, and a team trainer, Aris Helioudakis, each walked away 5,000 euros richer after finding coins in their slices of traditional vassilopitta cake – an indication of good fortune in the year ahead here in Greece. Afterward, the two winning players said they hoped Olympiakos would enjoy a similar fate on Sunday. All available tickets for the match have already sold out, while heightened security measures are being planned to avert clashes between rival fans.

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