After dominating the domestic scene for years, Olympiakos have set their sights on European glory
By Lou Economopoulos in Athens
Having claimed the league title 12 times in the past 13 seasons, Olympiakos owner Socrates Kokkalis has raised the bar for next season: he now wants European recognition for the Piraeus club.
And this is where new coach Temuri Ketsbaia comes in.
Kokkalis has hired the man who knocked his team out of the Champions League last year, with the 41-year-old Georgian leaving Cypriot club Anorthosis to become Olympiakos’ 21st coach in the last 16 years.
Kokkalis made it clear in June when parting company with Ernesto Valverde that winning the Greek league and cup double – as the Spanish coach had just done – does not bring absolute joy to the hard-to-please Olympiakos clan. But a European title certainly will.
The first goal Ketsbaia has set for his new charges is to qualify for the Champions League group stage and during pre-season he has been working on three systems to achieve this: the classic 4-4-2 line-up, the more attacking 4-3-3, and a conservative 4-3-2-1 which will be deployed depending on the opponents and the circumstances.
Joining Olympiakos this season will be Swedish defender Olof Mellberg from Juventus and English forward Matt Derbyshire, who makes permanent last term’s loan from Blackburn Rovers.
Former international captain Mellberg, 32, has won 90 caps for his country and he joins for a fee of around £2million. As for Derbyshire, the club paid £2.5m for the 23-year-old striker who became a club hero with his two goals in the Greek Cup Final in May.
Panathinaikos were the last team to stop Olympiakos claiming the title – in 2004 – and they are expected to be their main challengers once again.
Having finished third last season, they took the Super League’s second Champions League place by winning the post-season play-off and they have spent the summer adding to their squad.
Their big purchase was France striker Djibril Cisse, who cost £7m from Marseille and becomes the club’s best-paid player of all time.
Cisse’s arrival in Athens – on Panathinaikos president Nikos Pateras’ private jet – was greeted by 3,000 of the club’s supporters at the airport and the 28-year-old commented: “I am very enthusiastic about the welcome and I have not witnessed anything like it in my life. I really didn’t expect or imagine it.”
Panathinaikos also picked up Argentinian midfielder Sebastian Leto – who spent last term on loan at Olympiakos – from Liverpool for £3.5m, national midfielder Kostas Katsouranis from Benfica for £2.5m and Mali defender Cedric Kante from Nice.
Polish defender Jakub Wawrzyniak has returned to Legia Warsaw following confirmation that he had taken banned substances in a league match in May.
PAOK, who have Euro 2004 star Thodoris Zagorakis as their president, have had a busy pre-season, setting their sights high and signing Argentinian forward Lucio Filomeno from Asteras, former AEK and Italy Under-21 defender Bruno Cirillo from Reggina, and promising midfielder Vasilios Koutsianikoulis for £1m from Ergotelis.
“I am very lucky to wear the PAOK jersey, it is a great honour for me,” said Cirillo of his return to football in Greece.
“I will do my best to gain the trust of my coach and fellow players and to justify the club for giving me the opportunity to play for them.”
More than 70 players have come and gone at AEK in the last four years as the Athens club have tried to end a drought of 15 years without a league title. This time around, despite a small budget due to ongoing financial problems, they have managed to land international midfielder Grigoris Makos from Panionios, defender Nikos Karabelas on a free transfer from Aris and Romanian midfielder Ilie Iordache from Pandurii.
Last season’s surprise package Larisa have not added any major new signings so far, while Aris have picked up Argentinian defender Cristian Nasuti from Banfield, Tunisia midfielder Medhi Nafti from Birmingham City, midfielder Leandro Gracian on loan from Boca Juniors and Uruguayan striker Sebastian Abreu, who ended last season at Real Sociedad in Spain on loan from River Plate of Argentina.
“I had a number of offers from abroad and from Greece, but I chose Aris because it is a club that showed that it wanted me very much,” explained Abreu, who has scored 27 goals in 46 appearances for his country. “For my part I will do everything to justify their selection of me and will bring joy to the supporters of the team.”
Aris also picked up promising 19-year-old striker Ian Daly, who has played for Manchester City’s junior teams and has been a member of the Republic of Ireland Under-17 and Under-19 squads.
Slovakia forward Peter Styvar, on loan from Bristol City, is the big summer signing so far for Xanthi, while Panionios picked up Croatian forward Bosko Balaban on a free transfer from Dinamo Zagreb and Argentinian midfielder Carlos Casteglione on loan from Arsenal Sarandi.
Of last season’s strugglers only Iraklis, who will be coached by Ukrainian Oleg Protasov this season, have added significantly to their squad, signing Sweden midfielder Sharbel Touma from Borussia Monchengladbach and Romanian striker Victoras Iacob from Otopeni. Ergotelis, Panthrakikos, Asteras and Levadiakos have so far failed to add any players that might help them move up the table this term.
The newly promoted trio of Atromitos, Giannina and Kavala are also low on incoming help, though second division champions Atromitos did sign Poland midfielder Marcin Baszczynski from Wisla Krakow.
“This is the first time in my career that I will be playing for a club outside Poland, but I have played in many European contests and have gained much experience,” said the 31-year-old, who won six Polish league championships.
“I feel great that I will be continuing my career in Greece.”