AEK still hoping for title, team’s coach says

AEK’s coach Dusan Bajevic, who was named last season’s best coach by a players association vote on Monday night, said yesterday that he expected better days in the near future for his team, while also believing that its title hopes had not vanished despite a shaky start to the season. In recent weeks, turbulence has simmered in and around the club, a pre-season favorite for the title that is now fifth in the Greek first division, seven points behind front runner and defending champion Olympiakos. «We’re going through a crisis, but the game against Akratitos can be taken as a message that the team will continue its struggle,» the Greek-naturalized Serb coach told local radio station Super Sport FM, refering to AEK’s 7-2 thrashing of last weekend’s opponent after recovering from an early two-goal deficit. «The league lies ahead, as does the title, which is the objective we must keep focused on. If the team needs to be revamped, then we’re prepared to do that. I can’t say that the tough times are over at AEK. In our line of work, you’ve got to be careful, patient, and able to prevent certain things from happening,» he added. Like most other first-division Greek clubs, AEK has struggled financially as a result of last year’s bankruptcy of a pay-TV station that deprived the team’s coffers of crucial revenues from broadcasting rights. Moreover, mishandling of club funds by a former team boss intensified AEK’s financial woes. Last season’s impressive form, which nevertheless failed to rake in the league title for the club, was reflected in Monday’s players association vote. AEK was named team of the season. «It’s rare for a team to be voted the season’s best performer when it hasn’t won the title,» noted Bajevic. «AEK played very well last year, especially in the second half of the season… and the solid appearances in the Champions League played a role [in the vote],» he added. AEK drew all of its six European games last season in the Champions League’s first phase of group play, which, nevertheless, was not enough for a berth in the second. This season’s Champions League quest by the club has been dismal by comparison. AEK lies rock-bottom in Group C with just one point from four games. Second place for a berth in the competition’s next round is beyond reach, while third place, which would provide a consolatory berth into the less prestigious UEFA Cup’s third round, appear slim. Dutch club PSV Eindhoven is third in the group, five points ahead of AEK, with two rounds of play remaining. «As for the Champions League, there are two games to go and our aim is to prove what we’re worth,» said Bajevic, «and not lose respect in Europe.» In Monday’s vote, attacking midfielder Stelios Yiannakopoulos, who switched from Olympiakos to English Premier League Bolton Wanderers this season, was voted last season’s leading player. Yiannakopoulos, who attended Monday night’s awards ceremony in Athens, said that he secretly believed he stood a chance for the award. «I had a very good season last year. Perhaps my best ever with Olympiakos, which was combined with the league title,» remarked Yiannakopoulos, also a key player in Greece’s qualification for next summer’s Euro 2004 competition in Portugal. «All that counted,» he added. Commenting on this Saturday’s friendly against Portugal, the player said it would be «a good opportunity to see where we stand after qualifying.»