Looking to erase French past

Panathinaikos returns to France for a UEFA Cup first-leg Round of 32 encounter against Lens tonight hoping to sweep aside bitter recent memories from its last French visit, which resulted in a humiliating 4-0 loss at Paris Saint-Germain in the previous round’s concluding group game. Despite the loss, Panathinaikos held on to the top spot in Group G. Lens, currently second in Le Championnat, France’s top league, sneaked through to the Round of 32 as the third-placed team in Group D. The top three teams from the UEFA Cup’s eight groups advanced, joined by the top-tier Champions League’s third-placed sides from its eight groups. «I don’t want to remain stuck to negative events. We need a positive outlook,» said Panathinaikos coach Victor Munoz, referring to his side’s previous visit to France. «We had already qualified and were under no pressure for that game,» added the former Spain defender. In the runup to tonight’s game, the Panathinaikos camp was set back by the news of Argentinean midfielder Ezequiel Gonzalez’s latest knee injury that will keep him sidelined for approximately two months. Gonzalez, who had returned from injury in December after a four-month absence, will need to undergo knee surgery, the club’s medical team has confirmed. The Argentine’s latest injury crisis comes at a time when Munoz is looking for ways to rejuvenate his squad following a series of poor domestic results that seem to have all but shattered Panathinaikos’s hopes for the league title. The Athens club lies third, a point behind second-placed AEK, and 11 points behind the Super League’s breakaway leader Olympiakos. Nine rounds of play remain in the 16-team competition. Tonight’s UEFA Cup contest comes just days ahead of a critical domestic game for Panathinaikos against AEK. With their title hopes now waning, the pair are locked in battle for second place and a place in the Champions League’s pre-group qualifiers. The league champion advances straight to the group stage. Fourth-placed Aris lies a distant eight points behind Panathinaikos, meaning that the battle for second spot has shaped up into a two-horse race. Interestingly, Lens has met no other Greek team in the UEFA Cup other than Panathinaikos. In its total of nine European games against French competition, Panathinaikos has won four, drawn two, and lost three. This tie’s second leg in Athens is scheduled for February 22. The aggregate winners will face either Bayer 04 Leverkusen or Blackburn Rovers in the Round of 16, playing the home leg on March 8 and the return leg a week later.