SPORTS

Panathinaikos, a huge bet for its coach

It has been a case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for the Panathinaikos soccer club this season. The team’s inconsistency has sparked friction and frustration among fans who have had to deal with wild swings in form. On the one hand, there were atrocious away performances against Barcelona and Udinese in the Champions League competition, and last week’s shock fourth-round exit from the Greek Cup with an away loss against second-division club Ergotelis. On the other, signs of hope have surfaced from important games such as the Athens club’s home draw against Barcelona and win against Werder Bremen, both in the Champions League. This type of inconsistency is normal for a team that is being built from scratch with new faces and a new philosophy. This season, Panathinaikos seems to have thrown itself at each and every game achieving consistent form. It’s been either up or down, no in-between. A stable foundation is a prerequisite if this side is, at some point, going to hit a long stretch of continual improvement. Who then is the real Panathinaikos this season? Is it the team that bowed out of the Greek Cup, unable to confront lower-division opposition. Or is it the team that, quite remarkably, is still in contention for a place in the Champions League’s next round, despite being up against Spanish, German and Italian competition in its group. Prior to the recent shocking loss against Ergotelis in Crete and the thrashing by Barcelona at Camp Nou, the Greek club’s boss Yiannis Vardinoyiannis contended that Panathinaikos was a club with huge potential. But the double tragedy, in Barcelona and Crete, puts that kind of optimism into question. At this point, coach Alberto Malesani continues to receive the backing of the club’s administration, even though a great percentage of the team’s fans are openly doubting the Italian’s ability. Malesani, ultimately, will get the credit for gradually establishing the team’s younger players, but he must also seek ways to make the most out of the club’s lucrative signings, as well as handling his team’s wild swings in form. He is not an inexperienced coach. In Italy, Malesani worked with many high-caliber players. He has taken on many budding talents who went on to become established soccer figures worth enormous amounts on the transfer market. This alone highlights Malesani’s ability to develop nascent players, or the horde of talented 20-somethings at Panathinaikos now taking their first steps in the big league. Focusing on a team’s youth at a club that not only has much expected of it but has also lived humbly under the shadow of its eternal rival Olympiakos over the past decade or so, is a huge gamble. The coach is not only up against time but a lack of patience, too, an infamous trait in the volatile Greek character. If it’s considered difficult to field one youngster in Champions League competition, then it is extremely difficult to select three of four at once. Such a strategy can burn aspiring youngsters. It is unreasonable to demand responsibility from youngsters when more experienced team members are themselves struggling against inconsistency. If experienced players, such as former Brazilian international Conceicao or Croat Igor Biscan, are finding it hard adjusting to the demands of their new team in a strange environment and in an unknown country, then the difficulties are clearly greater for the younger players with little experience. The maturing process is not something accomplished in a month. It comes step by step. Huge strides are made only by big talent. But they are rarely produced in today’s conveyor-belt soccer industry.