Panathinaikos eyes top spot

Going into tonight’s UEFA Cup home game against Rapid Bucharest as Group G leader with a game in hand, Panathinaikos could seal its place in the competition’s next stage with a draw. Even so, the Athens club’s coach, Victor Munoz, said yesterday his players would push for victory. It would maintain Panathinaikos’s perfect record so far with two wins from as many games, beginning with a 2-0 victory in Athens against Hapoel Tel Aviv and followed by a 1-0 away win over Mlada Boleslav. «It’s our obligation to win. In soccer, you can’t play for a draw, only victory,» Munoz said. Despite the Spaniard’s forceful remarks, he is expected to take into consideration his team’s next domestic challenge in the Super League against midtable Aris this weekend. Certain players may be rested tonight ahead of that clash. Second-placed Panathinaikos, a 3-2 winner over Apollon Kalamaria last weekend, is hot on the trail of front-runner and defending Greek champion Olympiakos, just two points ahead as the season approaches the halfway mark. In his remarks yesterday, Munoz contended that he would look to field the strongest possible lineup for tonight’s clash against the Romanians. But pundits believe three or four regular starters could be missing. «We’ll start thinking about the Aris game after this. At this point, the UEFA Cup interests us as much as the Greek league, so we need a team for both competitions,» said Munoz. Panathinaikos striker Dimitris Papadopoulos rated Rapid Bucharest as his team’s toughest challenge in the UEFA Cup’s five-team Group G. «The Romanians are skillful, both as players and as a team, so we’re going to have to be particularly careful,» Papadopoulos said. Rapid Bucharest, which has drawn all three of its Group G games, is third, three points behind Panathinaikos. Hapoel is second with four points from three games. The top three clubs from the competition’s eight groups advance to the next stage and are joined by the third-placed teams from the Champions League’s eight groups for a total of 32 remaining contestants. These go into battle in home-and-away knockout encounters all the way to the final.

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