AEK begins its European battle

For AEK, the new season begins tonight in Edinburgh, when the Athens soccer club takes on Hearts in the opening encounter of a home-and-away tie for a Champions League berth. It will be the first official match for AEK’s new coach, Spaniard Lorenzo Serra Ferrer. «There’s nothing that’s troubling me. I have total faith in my side,» said Ferrer, who replaced Fernando Santos, now at Benfica. AEK is counting on playing in the group stages to balance its books. The club’s president, Demis Nikolaidis, admitted they have spent their budget with the expectation they would emerge from the qualifying round. «We have taken a big risk by spending money we don’t have. If we don’t qualify, then we could have financial problems but if we do, then everything will be OK again,» said Nikolaidis. In recent years, AEK has had a good record against Scottish teams – having knocked Rangers out of the Champions League qualifiers in 1994 and defeating Hibernian in the first round of the UEFA Cup in 2001. But Ferrer refuses to dwell on past glories. «These things count for nothing during a game and can easily change. If our club’s history with Scottish clubs is positive though, I hope it continues,» he said. AEK central defender Traianos Dellas highlighted the importance of the encounter against Hearts. «We’ve been preparing for these two games,» noted the towering defender, a key player in Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph. «We’re not looking for excuses because of the fact that Hearts has played more games than us,» added Dellas, referring to the Scottish season, which is already under way. Last weekend, Hearts defeated defending champion Celtic 2-1 at home. The Greek league begins later this month. Defending champion Olympiakos qualified automatically for the Champions League’s group stage. The Athens club will be up against a spirited home side looking to become only the third Scottish team to make it to the Champions League group stages. Due to high ticket demand, tonight’s game was moved from Hearts’ Tynecastle Stadium to Murrayfield, the home of Scottish rugby, where more than 30,000 supporters are expected to attend. Though soccer in Scotland is traditionally dominated by the Glasgow giants of Celtic and Rangers, the Edinburgh side, bankrolled by Lithuanian millionaire Vladimir Romanov, caused an upset last season by finishing second to secure a place in the first qualifying round of the Champions League. After a 3-0 aggregate win over Bosnian side NK Siroki Brijeg in the first round, Hearts will be hoping to follow Scottish champions Celtic into the group stages of Europe’s premier club competition by winning against Athens over two legs. And, though the Edinburgh club’s captain Steven Pressley says they will be the underdogs, he believes the large crowd could witness a shock result. «There’s no doubt that we can win this tie. They are definitely the favorites to go through at this moment in time but after beating Celtic on Sunday the confidence in our camp is high,» he said. The Scottish side’s Lithuanian manager Valdas Ivanauskas is also feeling confident they can shock their Greek opponents. «Beating the champions of Scotland was very important for our confidence before the Champions League game,» he said. (AFP/Kathimerini)

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