Panathinaikos and Olympiakos get ready for the game — or is it war?

With two days to go before the clash between archrivals Panathinaikos and Olympiakos that will likely decide the 2003 soccer championship, tempers are running high. At Rizoupoli, the old 15,000-seat stadium that Olympiakos uses as its home ground, more than 3,500 Olympiakos fans turned up yesterday to cheer their idols and exhort them to win an unprecedented seventh straight championship. Olympiakos is trailing Panathinaikos by three points and only a victory will preserve its chances for yet another championship. Panathinaikos won the first-round game between the two, 3-2, and an Olympiakos victory will bring the teams level. If Olympiakos wins by two or more goals, it moves to first place. A one-goal victory for Olympiakos will mean, if both teams beat their rivals on the last round next Sunday, that Panathinaikos and Olympiakos will play a playoff game for the title. However, no one expects Xanthi, which plays Olympiakos at home, or Akratitos, which plays away at Panathinaikos, to put up any serious resistance. The two teams’ opponents in the previous round put up only token resistance, enhancing suspicions that the big rivals leave nothing to chance. Yesterday, Panathinaikos’s Uruguayan coach, Sergio Markarian, told reporters that this is not a war. No one, however, who saw him chasing the referee after a game with Olympiakos last season, along with Panathinaikos’s president, Angelos Filippidis, believes that Markarian means what he says. Perhaps, surrounded by hostile Olympiakos fans, he and Filippidis will keep quieter this time. There is no doubt, however, that they will face a war-like atmosphere. Panathinaikos has already done its part to up the ante by demanding that all players pass through doping control before the match. The demand was rejected. Socrates Kokkalis, Olympiakos president, chipped in with a passionate speech to the players on Wednesday, promising them a total of 2 million euros in case they win the title. «They are waging war against us,» he said. He didn’t specify who «they» are, but this war cannot be any worse than the one he has been waging against his own coaches. Oleg Protasov is Olympiakos’s fourth coach this season.

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