Champions League for three

For the first time in the competition’s history, three Greek soccer clubs have qualified for this season’s Champions League. Domestic champion Olympiakos will be joined by Panathinaikos and AEK. Panathinaikos will be the first Greek side to go into battle, tonight, in a tough match against English powerhouse Manchester United at Old Trafford in a Group E match. Tomorrow, AEK meets Deportivo La Coruna at home in a Group C game, and in Group D, Olympiakos travels abroad for its opening game against Real Sociedad. The country’s greatest presence in Europe’s premier club-level competition, along with the national team’s top spot in Euro 2004 group play and likely finals berth, combine to convey an optimal state for Greek soccer, one that is far rosier than the real picture of financial chaos at clubs, regular poor play, low attendance figures and persisting hooliganism. In fact, this strong representation, numerically, actually highlights one of the major problems faced by Greek soccer, this being the dominance of Athenian clubs. All three Champions League qualifiers are based in Athens. Moreover, clubs from outside the Greek capital have yet to reach the Champions League since the event was launched a little over a decade ago. With most of the continent’s powerhouses taking part, this year’s competition should offer plenty of high-caliber soccer. Few major draws are absent, notable examples being Liverpool and Roma, two European sides that enjoy popularity beyond their national frontiers. Among the competition’s previous title-holders, Borussia Dortmund is the only side missing. Club Brugge deprived the Germans of their place in the competition in a game determined by a penalty shootout. This season, the competition’s group play has been pruned down to one round from the customary – and far more exhausting – two. The 16 clubs that capture the two top places in each of the event’s eight groups, will advance to home-and-away knockout ties. Greece’s three representatives will, no doubt, be looking for respectable runs. Considering the level of competition, aspirations for greater performances, like those occasionally enjoyed by Panathinaikos, should be kept under control. Theoretically, Panathinaikos stands the best chance of advancing to the competition’s next phase. Admittedly, the Greek team will be up against the almighty Manchester United in its group, but it possesses greater experience in the competition than fellow group members Rangers and Stuttgart, both Champions League first-timers. It is not unrealistic for AEK to also hope for a second-round berth. Group C favorites Deportivo La Coruna have been a consistent Champions League force in recent years but are not in the same league as their compatriots, powerhouse Real Madrid. On a good day, AEK is capable of outplaying fellow group members Monaco and PSV. Olympiakos will most likely have a tough task in Group D. Juventus is a side capable of almost always getting the result it needs. For reasons beyond sporting ability alone, Turkish side Galatsaray will not be easy. Being a Spanish club, Real Sociedad, in the competition for the first time, cannot be discounted. Reflecting the financial weight of carrying this highly commercial television event, this season’s Champions League will be televised by three stations in Greece. State television NET has purchased the rights for games on Tuesdays, and Mega Channel for games on Wednesdays. Pay-TV Super Sport has purchased the rights for all other games. Tonight, besides confronting Manchester United, one of the competition’s most formidable sides, Panathinaikos will also need to go against a statistical tide. In the competition’s history, Manchester United has come up against Greek clubs in eight games, winning six of these and drawing in two.

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