Panathinaikos meets first-timer in Champions League opener

UDINE – Panathinaikos begins its seventh Champions League campaign tonight backed by a solid tradition in the competition, even at times when the club is not performing well in the domestic league. Drawn in Group C, the Athens club meets Udinese of Italy, which will be making its Champions League debut. Pundits who believe that the Champions League first-timers do not pose a threat to Panathinaikos may be surprised. In two previous encounters with Greek clubs, in the UEFA Cup, Udinese eliminated PAOK and Panionios. Udinese may not enjoy the lofty reputation of other Italian clubs, such as Juventus, Milan and Inter, but the club is impressive, consistent, and, without a doubt, a threat to Panathinaikos. In domestic competition this season, Udinese has registered two wins in as many games, and easily eliminated Sporting, a finalist in last season’s UEFA Cup, in the final round of qualifying competition for a group place. Udinese ended fourth in Serie A last season. Panathinaikos, the runner-up in last season’s Greek league, made it through to the Champions League after rebounding against Wisla Krakow in the final round of qualifying competition. The Athens club suffered a worrying 3-1 defeat in Poland but fought back with a 4-1 score, after extra time, at home for its 5-4 aggregate. Going into tonight’s game, Panathinaikos’s Italian coach Alberto Malesani is not without worries. His squad will be without three key players, Brazilian Conceicao and Pole Emmanouel Olisadebe, both suspended, and striker Dimitris Papadopoulos, who missed the trip to Italy due to injury. Moreover, the Athens club will need to improve on its Greek league performance last weekend against Ionikos. In that game, Panathinaikos struggled to rebound for a 1-1 away draw. «We’re not in the best possible frame of mind, and need to give all we’ve got for a good result. Udinese is a very good team, but Panathinaikos has combated better teams in the Champions League,» noted Ilias Kotsios. «We haven’t started the season well, but I have faith in the team and am optimistic. Some 2,000 Panathinaikos fans will be in the stands supporting their side. In Group C’s other game, also tonight, Werder Bremen hosts Barcelona.