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The challengers to Greece's big three

When Julio Cesar's free-kick wrong-footed Dida at the OAKA Spiros Louis Stadium in 2006, it marked a glorious if momentary return to the summit of European football for AEK Athens.

That 1-0 victory over eventual champions AC Milan during the UEFA Champions League group stage represented the rebirth of a maligned power of Greek football.

Five years on, though, the same financial problems that had previously threatened to relegate the powerhouse to the obscurity of Greece's lower tiers are still plaguing the club. Current chairman Stavros Adamidis revealed the extent of the problems in a recent interview following an embarrassing 4-0 home defeat to newly-promoted Olympiakos Volou, painting a bleak picture of a club operating beyond its financial means.

The bizarre mid-season departure of perennial troublemaker Rafik Djebbour perhaps sums up AEK's current plight, the Algerian striker walking out after recently agreeing a contract extension. He has joined rivals Olympiakos on a six-month contract, apparently doing so without the knowledge of his agent and so writing himself into AEK supporters' blacklists.

Of most concern is the fact that the club spent €6 million in total on the player with little to show for their investment, save for the odd string of captivating performances punctuated by fights with team-mates and coaches.

Djebbour's stint with AEK is just one of many awful investments that have been made by administrators, the consequences of which have been suffered by a number of managers who have had little to work with in terms of transfer budgets and personnel.

Former Sevilla boss Manolo Jimenez is the latest to struggle with a squad of individuals who are either too old, too young or simply not good enough. He said as much in the aftermath of the Volou defeat and will probably lose his job if AEK don't lift the Greek Cup this season.

In fourth place in the league and 18 points behind leaders Olympiakos, AEK in their current state can no longer be considered one of Greece's traditional 'Big Three', with the usually fanatical support for the side waning as well.

Their spot has been taken by Thessaloniki giant PAOK, a traditional challenger to the dominance of Athenian sides in Greece, even if 68 of 74 league titles have been won by one of the capital clubs. Not too long ago, PAOK too were in a perilous financial plight before being rescued by darling and Euro 2004-winning captain Theodoros Zagorakis, marking their return as a genuine title challenger.

Arsenal fans will testify to the potential power of PAOK in Europe after Zisis Vryzas consigned them to a memorable - at least, in the eyes of Greeks - UEFA Cup exit in 1997 and whilst those glory days haven't quite been recaptured, they were only narrowly defeated by Ajax in their quest for UEFA Champions League football this season.

Certainly they are a more potent threat to the dominance of Panathinaikos and Olympiakos than AEK in their current state.

PAOK's fierce local rivals Aris are another side who appear to have the means to present a similar challenge, though the departure of Hector Cuper and a poor performance in the league this season have halted the momentum built during the Argentine's two-year tenure.

Between them, the Thessaloniki powers have five league titles; the only other not belonging to Panathinaikos, Olympiakos or AEK went to Larissa in 1988.

That stunning accomplishment under the legendary Jacek Gmoch has never been repeated, though a Greek Cup victory in 2007 was a welcome change from the bankruptcy and time spent in the third division that had forced a name change to AEL 1964.

Though the majority of Greece's clubs have long, complex and colourful histories, spawning outstanding individuals both as players and coaches, none have been consistent enough on and off the pitch to enjoy prolonged periods of success.

It has allowed Olympiakos to enjoy build a dynasty over the past two decades, monopolising Champions League football and the associated financial windfalls that would be so important to the likes of AEK, PAOK and Aris. Panathinaikos' league and cup double last season appears an aberration of sorts, with the return of Ernesto Valverde to Piraeus bringing back that familiar air of confidence to the Karaiskakis Stadium.

Given AEK's fall from grace, the importance of the two Thessaloniki clubs and in particular PAOK to Greek football has increased.

The fanaticism of their fan-base and the natural hostility generated whenever teams - particularly those from Athens - travel north means it is a region where an alternate powerbase can be built. If this were to happen, it would be a tremendous positive for the Greek domestic scene, where the stagnant standard is seeing the country's most talented footballers increasingly choose destinations such as the Netherlands and Germany for their development.

AEK prodigy Kostas Manolas, for instance, has all the attributes to become a top-class international defender but the likelihood of his staying with the club beyond this season is slim. Instead he will choose to follow in the footsteps of Sokratis Papastathopoulos, another talented defender sold by the club at a criminal price and tender age. He is now an AC Milan player.

The club themselves are to blame for such poor decisions, but it can only do so much given Adamidis' pledge to curtail wage expenditure.

PAOK, too, have in the past been forced to jettison star players for the simple reason that they can be better paid in more prestigious leagues, while Fernando Santos - the current Greece manager - was always going to jump at the chance to take the helm of the national team after bringing the club domestic success.

So how do a club like AEK rebuild so that Greece's top three can finally become a top four or even a top five?

As Adamidis has pointed out, investment is obviously the quickest method and the lawyer is looking to find a financially suitable individual to take over the reigns over the next few months.

If no such figure emerges then player development appears the best option. Rather than luring back past heroes Traianos Dellas and Nikos Lyberopoulos, giving the likes of Manolas and fellow talent Savvas Gentsoglou exposure on the pitch before selling them for a considerable profit later on is surely more prudent.

Such a strategy would, however, require patience and a long-term plan from administrators, players and fans - something that is in short supply in Greece and has contributed to the embarrassing situation at AEK and many other clubs like it.

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