Greek soccer season begins with title rivals facing off

Olympiakos begins its Greek title defense Sunday in the toughest possible fashion – against rival and lead challenger Panathinaikos. Both teams are pinning their hopes on Brazilian talent. Inspired by former world player of the year Rivaldo, Olympiakos last season edged Panathinaikos to the league title by a single point and won the Greek Cup. However, Panathinaikos will give a league debut to Rivaldo’s countryman, winger Flavio Conceicao, at Athens’s Olympic Stadium. Conceicao, signed from Turkey’s Galatasaray, joins former Liverpool midfielder Igor Biscan as Panathinaikos’s key off-season signings. Meanwhile, Olympiakos starts the season with a new coach and nine new players, including Cypriot striker Michalis Constantinou, who made the rare move from Panathinaikos after four seasons at the Athens club. Also added to the squad are Dani Garcia from Spain’s Espanyol, and Ivory Coast’s Yaya Toure and Nigeria’s Haruna Babangida, both signed from Ukrainian club Metalurh Donetsk. Norwegian coach Trond Sollied, who replaced Serb Dusan Bajevic, plans to repeat the aggressive tactics that brought the Belgian championship to FC Brugge – with new midfield acquisitions helping Constantinou and fellow Cypriot forward Yiannis Okkas. Olympiakos, with automatic participation in the Champions League, will be joined in Europe’s most lucrative club competition by Panathinaikos, which beat Polish Wisla Krakow 4-1 on Tuesday. The 32-team competition’s draw, held yesterday in Monte Carlo, pitted Olympiakos against nine-time winner Real Madrid, French club Lyon, and Norway’s Rosenborg, which the Greek club’s new coach, Sollied, had led before moving to FC Brugge. They will all compete in Group F. «We will fight for second place along with Lyon and Rosenborg. It’s positive for us that we have our last group match at home against Madrid,» remarked Sollied. «It never crossed my mind that I would go back to Norway as Rosenborg’s opponent, but that’s life. We can collect points from all the sides of our group, both home and away,» he added. Panathinaikos, drawn into Group C, will meet Barcelona – one of the tournament’s favorites – Germany’s Werder Bremen, and Udinese, one of four Italian teams in the competition. The Champions League draw brought together two English clubs, defending champion Liverpool and Premier League title holder Chelsea, in Group G along with Anderlecht and Real Betis. «I knew we were going to be playing Chelsea. I wasn’t surprised at all. I just had a feeling,» commented Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard. Returning to the Greek league, cash-strapped AEK, the third main contender for the 30-round, 16-team first division trophy, opens Monday with a match at Atromitos. AEK made no big off-season signings and is coached by Portuguese Fernando Santos, who led it to third place last season. PAOK is reinforced by midfielder Theo Zagorakis for tomorrow’s trip to Xanthi. After a 10-year stint in the lower divisions, provincial club Levadiakos returns to the top flight with a September 4 home game against Ionikos. Larissa and Akratitos, the other promoted teams, play Panionios and Iraklis respectively on Sunday. Kallithea hosts Aegaleo tomorrow while Apollon Kalamaria hosts OFI the following day in the weekend’s other games. (AP, Kathimerini)