Archrivals set for Champions League tasks

If there is any consolation for Panathinaikos fans in seeing their main rivals Olympiakos collect eight league titles in the last nine years, then it lies in the European records of the two clubs. While Olympiakos have failed to fulfill their potential on the biggest stage, Panathinaikos, who had to beat Wisla Krakow 5-4 on aggregate to claim their place in this year’s group stage, can at least point to a European Cup final and semifinal and a Champions League semifinal. Twice they lost to Ajax Amsterdam. In 1971, under Ferenc Puskas, they went down 2-0 in the final at Wembley Stadium to an Ajax team boasting the likes of Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens that went on to win it again the next two seasons and form the basis for the 1974 Netherlands team that reached the World Cup final. In the 1995-96 Champions League semifinal, they caused an upset by beating Ajax 1-0 in the first leg in Amsterdam. Unfortunately, the Dutch were by far the better team in the second leg and won 3-0 in Athens. On the other occasion when they reached the European Cup semifinal, in 1985, they were well beaten by Liverpool, losing 4-0 at Anfield and 1-0 in Athens. One of the goal scorers for Ajax in 1995-96 was Nordin Wooter, who is now wearing the green shirt of Panathinaikos. Wooter was brought in during the course of last season along with the coach Alberto Malesani, who has further added to his squad during the summer. Two of the big names to join are Brazilian Flavio Conceicao and the Croatian midfielder Igor Biscan, who was part of Liverpool’s Champions League winning squad back in May. Swedish international Mikael Nilsson has also made the move from Southampton while Hungarian striker Sandor Torghelle has agreed to a one-year loan deal from another English club, Crystal Palace. Last year, Panathinaikos came within an ace of qualifying for the knockout stage, drawing home and away with Arsenal and winning their other two home games against Rosenborg and PSV Eindhoven. But a timid defeat at Eindhoven and a careless draw in Norway, when they appeared to have the game wrapped up, cost them dearly. However, there is quality in the team and rivals will underestimate them at their peril. With Barcelona, Udinese and Werder Bremen in their group this time, they are facing another tough task but, as their coach Alberto Malesani points out, they will at least try to enjoy it. «It is the biggest league in the world,» he said. «Only the World Cup is more important. It is going to be a great experience for everyone.» Especially if they can surprise the big guns. At archrival Olympiakos, Greece’s other Champions League representative this season, success in Europe has become a top-priority issue. The club’s poor record in Europe led to the departure of coach Dusan Bajevic at the end of last season, despite a league and cup double in Greece, the club’s 11th. «Maybe my powers were not enough to fulfill the European dream that they want so much at Olympiakos,» he said. The European dream is something that Olympiakos supporters and most particularly their owner Socrates Kokkalis have had in mind during the club’s domination of Greek soccer in recent years. The Piraeus club has won eight of the past league titles, including last season’s. In spite of the perennial challenge from Panathinaikos, and occasionally AEK, Greece is now too small for Olympiakos and Kokkalis. They yearn for success on the European stage. It means that their new coach Trond Sollied, who arrived in the summer from Club Bruges, is in one of the hottest seats on the continent. Success in Europe and he will be elevated to the pantheon, failure to qualify for the knockout stage and he may find himself following Bajevic quicker than he thinks. In order to meet the minimum requirements, Sollied must take Olympiakos past Real Madrid, Olympique Lyonnais and Rosenborg Trondheim in the group stage, something they have achieved only once before, in 1998-99. Then, they topped a group that included Croatia Zagreb, Ajax Amsterdam and Porto and were within six minutes of a place in the semifinals when Antonio Conte scored an equalizer in Piraeus that put Juventus through instead. Even in that campaign, however, they were not able to win away from home, a problem that has blighted them over the years. Last season, under Bajevic, they beat Liverpool, Monaco and Deportivo La Coruna in Piraeus but picked up just one point away from Greece. Their most extraordinary choke came in their final game at Anfield when they blew a 1-0 lead to lose 3-1 to Liverpool. In spite of collecting 10 points, they were out and, as far as Liverpool is concerned, the rest is history. Sollied has introduced eight new players to his squad this summer to complement the evergreen talents of Predrag Djordjevic and Rivaldo. Notably, he has brought Michalis Kapsis back to Greece to bolster his defense, lured Yaya Toure into the midfield and tempted Michalis Konstantinou to cross the Athens divide from Panathinaikos. He will have to do without Giovanni, who has returned to Brazil, but for goals he has brought in Spanish striker Dani. It may work, it may not. If Sollied wants to keep his job beyond December, he should pray that it does.