Mighty two have slender leads to defend

Greece’s two biggest soccer clubs, Olympiakos and Panathinaikos, will be defending slender one-goal leads in tonight’s return legs, both away, for fourth-round UEFA Cup berths. To get there, the domestic league’s front-runner Olympiakos, however, must break an unfavorable away record against French sides when it takes on Sochaux at its Stade Bonal Stadium in the east of France. Olympiakos, which goes into the game hoping to recover from last weekend’s loss to struggling Cretan side Ergotelis – the result slashed the Piraeus team’s lead in the league standings to two points – has lost on its last four visits to France. Over seven visits, the Greek club has won just one game, drawn another, and lost five times. The solitary win stretches back to the 1992/93 season against Monaco in a second-round UEFA Cup Winners Cup match. Commenting on the match prior to the team’s flight yesterday, Olympiakos coach Dusan Bajevic expressed faith in the abilities of his side. «Olympiakos is a team possessing quality and is able to manage,» Bajevic told reporters. «We have a reasonably good score from the first leg. We’re not going to play defensively; our objective is to score. We’re not going to have a good time if we stay back and close up,» Bajevic added. The tension at Olympiakos has been running high in recent days, following its loss to Ergotelis, and, according to reports, the outcome of tonight’s encounter could prove crucial for some on the club’s roster. Reports earlier this week contended that even the job of Bajevic, undoubtedly Greece’s most successful coach with scores of domestic titles at Olympiakos and AEK as well as a cup triumph at PAOK, could be tested tonight. The sudden impact of elimination tonight could well target Bajevic, but the players know very well that, come transfer season in the summer, their jobs, too, could be on the line. With the club’s president, powerful entrepreneur Socrates Kokkalis, seeking handsome returns from team investments, including last year’s reconstruction of Karaiskaki Stadium and a lucrative contract for Brazilian star signature Rivaldo, expectations for an impressive UEFA Cup run are high. Bitterness smothered the club earlier this season after it failed to make it through to the current phase of the more prestigious Champions League, despite a perfect home record of three wins from as many games and a draw away. Olympiakos, which was deprived of its group’s runners-up spot by Liverpool, on head-to-head record, was given a consolatory third-round berth in the UEFA Cup. Bajevic, admitting that the weekend loss to Ergotelis, marred further by fan violence that led to the conviction of four Olympiakos supporters, was a shock to all at the club, expressed faith and said his players ought to put it all behind them for tonight’s encounter. «We need to forget all that, focus on Sochaux, and do the best we can to qualify for the next round. One defeat cannot stop Olympiakos,» said Bajevic, referring to last weekend. «Sochaux, as was made clear in the first game, is a strong side. But Olympiakos is capable of clearing all hurdles,» he added. Also with a one-goal lead to defend, Panathinaikos will need to overcome opponent Sevilla’s fine record against Greek clubs. The Spanish club has won its previous three ties against Greek clubs, all in the UEFA Cup. PAOK was the victim on the first two occasions, back in the 1982/83 season and then, eight years later, while Olympiakos got the Andalusian team’s treatment in the 1995/96 season. Prior to last week’s encounter in Athens, which Panathinaikos won, thanks to a mighty long-range strike from Lucas Vintra in the 75th, the Greek club and Sevilla had never met in official competition. The game marks Italian coach Alberto Malesani’s European debut with Panathinaikos, following the recent sacking of his Czech predecessor Zdenek Scasny.

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