Olympiakos fears a European default

The mood is subdued at Olympiakos soccer club following last Sunday night’s 1-0 away defeat against archrival Panathinaikos that cost the Piraeus club its shared top spot in the standings. Now placed third, three points behind front-runner Panathinaikos and two behind AEK with five rounds of play remaining, Olympiakos is in danger of not only missing out on winning this year’s domestic league title, but its place in next season’s Champions League as well. That would prove disastrous for the books of the Piraeus club, whose president, the powerful entrepreneur Socrates Kokkalis, has invested heavily in a new stadium and lucrative signings, including star Brazilian player Rivaldo. Next season, Greece’s representation in the Champions League will be confined to two clubs. Previously, the league’s top two clubs qualified automatically, while the third-placed club was given a second chance through qualifiers. Third place, this season, would send Olympiakos to the less prestigious and lucrative UEFA Cup. To avoid that, Olympiakos, which prior to last season had won seven Greek league titles in a row, will need to push for a perfect record in its remaining games. Either Panathinaikos or AEK, or both, will drop points when they clash at the former’s home ground in the second-to-last round. Olympiakos hopes to gain ground there and overtake at least one of its two rivals. The Panathinaikos club could be forced to play its vital home game against AEK without the support of fans. The club has been summoned to face a sports tribunal tomorrow morning for various incidents concerning fans inside and outside its Leoforos Alexandras stadium on Sunday. Panathinaikos will also need to defend incidents that occurred in the previous round’s scoreless home draw against Aris. Returning to Olympiakos, it travels to Thessaloniki next weekend for an away clash against Apollon Kalamaria. The Piraeus team will be without striker Yiannis Okkas, who faces a one-game suspension. Coach Dusan Bajevic is hoping that defender Gabriel Schurrer and midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis will overcome injuries in time for the game in Thessaloniki. The club’s general manager, Savvas Theodoridis, in a bid to boost the team’s morale for the season’s remainder, said that, despite Sunday’s loss, the season was far from over. «The league is still open. As we’ve already seen, smaller clubs have been the cause of numerous defeats and draws [for the major clubs] that have had an impact on the standings,» Theodoridis said. He condemned the behavior of Panathinaikos’s fans against Olympiakos and Greece goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis, who switched from Panathinaikos to Olympiakos last summer, just prior to the national team’s triumph at Euro 2004. Considering him a traitor, Panathinaikos fans heaped abuse on Nikopolidis throughout the match last Sunday. They had begun expressing public hostilities against him days prior to the match. «Nikopolidis is a very fine lad, an impeccable character. I believe that his behavior during the game, his response to it all, was a lesson in manners,» Theodoridis said. Nikopolidis, at Panathinaikos, had spent several seasons under the shadow of Polish international goalkeeper Joszef Wandzik without any qualms before eventually taking over at the net when the Pole’s long tenure at the club finally ended. Nikopolidis gradually built a reputation as the country’s finest goalkeeper. Greece coach Otto Rehhagel has shown complete faith in Nikopolidis as first-choice keeper since taking over the national team. Toward the end of last season, Nikopolidis had asked for an improved contract, which was refused by Panathinaikos, before he switched to archrival Olympiakos.

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