PANATHINAIKOS, increasingly anxious to end the Greek League hegemony of Olympiakos, have turned to free-scoring Cypriot striker Michalis Constantinou in order to help them outstrip their Athens rivals.

Pana faced some stiff competition for the 23-year-old, with the likes of Udinese, AEK Athens, Anderlecht and Olympiakos themselves all trailing him because of his form for Salonika club Iraklis.

But Pana won the day, breaking their transfer record to bring Constantinou to the capital. They clinched the deal after offering Iraklis a tempting package featuring keeper Costas Chalkias, midfielder Evangelos Koutsores, striker Giorgios Nasiopoulos and a pile of drachma in a transaction worth around œ8million.

Coach Yiannis Kirastas was adamant that his club had done good business. ‘Constantinou impressed me greatly when I coached at Iraklis last season and I’m sure he will be a major asset,O he said. ‘He’s one of the sharpest strikers I have ever come across, probably the best marksman in Greek football at the moment. Constantinou has an instinct for being where the chances are and knows how to lose markers in the box.O

Although the Cypriot still needs to work on his heading, he has long looked a consummate finisher with his feet. In 1994-95, his debut season for home-town side Paralimni, he scored eight goals in just 13 League starts, and since joining Iraklis in the summer of 1997 he has remained consistently prolific.

He bagged 22 goals during the 1999-00 campaign, and added another 19 last term, finishing runner-up in the national charts.

While acknowledging the part played in his development by Iraklis, the overtly ambitious Constantinou has made no apologies for leaving for the bigger stage of Panathinaikos. ‘I owe Iraklis a lot,O he says. ‘They have been very good to me and I had four great years there. All the same, I think the time is right to move on. I believe I owe it to myself to keep on aiming higher and higher.

‘I received a very good offer by Greek standards from Panathinaikos and it will be a great honour to wear their jersey.O

In last season’s championship, Panathinaikos had to content themselves with their second consecutive runners-up spot, trailing in 12 points behind Olympiakos. But with Constantinou and Polish star Emmanuel Olisadebe linking up front, and Greek Player of the Year Nikos Limberopoulos operating just behind them, there is every chance Pana can muster the firepower to bridge the gap.

Club Panathinaikos (Gre)
Country Cyprus
Born February 19, 1978, in Paralimni
Previous clubs Union of Paralimni (now Enosi Neon Paralimniou), Iraklis
International debut August 1998, v Albania
International caps 21 (5 goals)