Two Greek clubs face stiff European competition

Olympiakos and AEK, the country’s two representatives in the new soccer season’s Champions League, Europe’s most prestigious and lucrative club-level competition, will need to overcome powerhouse teams in first-round group play if they are to hope for berths in the league’s second phase. The draw, which divided 32 clubs into eight groups of four, was held in Monaco yesterday. Defending champion Olympiakos, which has won six consecutive domestic titles but seen its European aspirations cut short year after year, will face one of the world’s most celebrated sides, Manchester United, last season’s runner-up Bayer Leverkusen, and Israel’s Maccabi Haifa in Group F. AEK, last year’s league runner-up in Greece – which qualified for the Champions League’s first round of group play after ousting Cyprus’s APOEL Nicosia 4-2 on aggregate on Wednesday night in a second-leg qualifier – will face the current European champion, Real Madrid, as well as Italy’s Roma and Belgian side KRC Genk in Group C. In its opening match on September 18, Olympiakos faces Bayer Leverkusen at the Piraeus club’s temporary home in Rizoupoli, where it will play home games – domestic and European – until a revamping of the Karaiskaiki Stadium in Faliron, the team’s customary home base, is completed for the Athens Olympics in 2004. AEK, which returns to Europe’s top club-level competition after a frustrating eight-year absence, will begin its quest a day earlier in Belgium against KRC Genk. Highlight matches for spectators include Olympiakos’s first encounter against Manchester United, away, on October 1, as well as their second clash in Athens on October 23. Other stand-out games for local fans include AEK’s first game against Roma in Athens on September 25, and, a week later, Real Madrid, also in the Greek capital. Teams will be vying for the top two places of each group for 16 berths in the second round, where they will be divided into four groups of four. The winners and runners-up of the competition’s second round will go into the Champions League’s quarterfinals draw. The final has been scheduled for May 28 at Manchester United’s home ground, Old Trafford. Commenting on the draw, Olympiakos coach Takis Lemonis described group opponents Manchester United and Bayer Leverkusen as two of the competition’s strongest teams but said his team would mount a spirited challenge. «If we stop having aspirations and objectives, we really are doing nothing,» Lemonis said. «Nobody has the luxury of choosing opponents. But what must be said is that we’ll give it our best shot,» he added. Dusan Bajevic, who returned to AEK during the summer break after an eight-year period, said his team’s first objective of qualifying for the Champions League, had been attained. AEK followed up a first-leg 3-2 away victory against Cyprus’s APOEL with a 1-0 win on Wednesday to advance. «It was a tough game and not of the highest quality but we got what we wanted,» Bajevic remarked after Wednesday’s clash. «AEK is the most experienced team in Greece and as the competition goes on we’ll pick up rhythm,» the Serb-Greek coach added. After retiring as a player for AEK, Bajevic led the team as coach to four domestic titles between 1988 and 1994 before transferring to Olympiakos to repeat the recipe and cook up three consecutive titles between 1997 and 1999. He has spent the past two seasons with PAOK, leading the Thessaloniki club to last year’s Greek Cup and fourth place in this season’s league. In keeping with the country’s punting tradition, British bookmakers already had their stakes out for the taking after last night’s draw in Monaco. Champion Real Madrid was rated as the tournament’s favorite with 9 to 2 odds for the title by one betting house. Local heroes Manchester United were given 5 to 1; Olympiakos, 80 to 1 odds; and AEK, 100 to 1.