PAOK gets tough UEFA Cup draw

Thessaloniki club PAOK, the country’s only survivor for UEFA Cup group play following last week’s elimination of three other Greek clubs, was yesterday drawn into Group G to battle against France’s Stade Rennes, Germany’s VfB Stuttgart, Ukraine’s Shakhtar Donetsk, and Rapid Bucharest of Romania for a place among the competition’s last 32. AEK, Aris, and Xanthi were all knocked out in qualifying competition last week. Though the opposition PAOK faces can theoretically be considered tough, the club’s coach, Giorgos Kostikos, said he remained unperturbed by the draw’s result. «All draws are tough. What matters is for PAOK to be prepared as best as possible for the moment of truth. We’re going to pursue qualification,» Kostikos noted shortly after the draw. «France is an institution in soccer. This country’s teams play organized soccer. But we, too, know what to go for when playing. PAOK should only fear its bad self. We will go for victory in all games and will determine how along the way,» he added, refering to the presence of French club Stade Rennes in Group G. Traditionally staged as home-and-away knockout competition all the way to the final, the UEFA Cup’s format was revised last year, with group play introduced to the tournament for the first time. As the competition’s format now stands, two qualifying rounds produce a first round of 80 teams drawn into home-and-away legs that determine 40 clubs for group play. The qualifiers are divided into eight groups of five teams each. Each club plays a total of four games – two at home and two away – for top, second, or third place in the group, which guarantees advancement to the next round. The 24 qualifiers are then joined by eight third-placed clubs from the Champions League’s group competition for the traditional two-match knockout format all the way to a single-match final. PAOK opens its campaign in Ukraine, where, just days ago, the Thessaloniki club, down to nine men, managed to hold Metalurh to a 2-2 draw for its group berth. This time, it meets Shakhtar Donetsk on October 20. In its second group game, PAOK greets VfB Stuttgart, the group favorite, in Thessaloniki on November 24. On December 1, PAOK takes on Rapid Bucharest in Romania. In its final group game, on December 14, PAOK plays France’s Stade Rennes in Thessaloniki. Speaking on state radio ERA Spor, PAOK midfielder Pantelis Constantinidis said he believed PAOK could make it through to the competition’s last 32 if the club capitalized on what he described as a strong home advantage. «If we win both home games, then we can hope to qualify. Shakhtar Donetsk is not in good shape, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a dangerous side,» Constantinidis said. «I’d say this is a good draw.»