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May 5, 2011

Greek play-offs promise further drama

This past weekend, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of Greek domestic football was perfectly surmised over two hours in the nation's capital.

Last Saturday saw the meeting of two sides who between them boast over 150 years of rich and colourful history, with Atromitos' presence in the Greek Cup final a testament to the often overlooked, rich tapestry of clubs outside of the traditional 'big three'. The match itself was hardly a classic but had all the makings of one before kick-off, with powerhouses AEK Athens desperate to end a nine-year trophy drought and Atromitos searching for a first taste of major silverware in their 88-year existence.

There was to be no fairytale for the side that only narrowly avoided relegation in this season's Super League, as AEK darling Nikos Lyberopoulos added a belated trophy to his previously empty cabinet. A universally popular figure and wonderful servant of Greek football throughout his long career, he headed home the opening - albeit offside - goal before being named man-of-the-match.

However, the charm of the occasion was overshadowed by the moronic behaviour of a minority of the AEK fan base, who invaded the pitch before full-time, causing the match to finish earlier than scheduled. Attacking members of the Atromitos VIP section, which contained the friends and relatives of the opposing players, their behaviour is all the more bizarre given it was a day of celebration for their club.

The Greek government has suspended funding for Greek domestic football as punishment, though three of those arrested after the riots have been handed suspended sentences.

True football fans will be thankful that the focus this weekend returns to the pitch after the embarrassing scenes on Saturday, as the Greek Super League enters its play-off phase. Four teams will be taking part in the mini-tournament, playing each other twice as they fight for Greece's second allocated UEFA Champions League spot.

Competing teams Panathinaikos, PAOK, AEK and this season's surprise packet Olympiakos Volou, will be desperate to finish top and secure a place in the Champions League third qualifying round. Given the cash windfall associated with group stage participation at European football's top table and the well-documented financial struggles of clubs like AEK, these matches take on added importance.

Of course, the team that finishes first is by no means assured a place in the Champions League proper given they only enter at the qualifying stage, but the mere chance will encourage the respective boardrooms of those clubs to invest in their squads.

On a purely financial level, AEK for instance could be forced into a fire-sale of their best players this summer as they attempt to service some of their debts. However, the prospect of Champions League football might change the situation and entice the likes of coveted Argentine star Nacho Scocco and Greek prodigy Kostas Manolas to stick with the club for at least another season.

Panathinaikos, meanwhile, won't want to see the hard work of the past two seasons - during which they ended bitter rivals Olympiakos' domestic dominance - thrown away. With the latter already assured of entry into the group stages of the Champions League next season, the green side of Athens will be desperate to do the same after a season in which they were well off the pace in the league and on the continent.

After missing out on a place in the group stages of this season's Champions League in heartbreaking fashion against Ajax, PAOK will be keen to banish the disappointment of a Greek Cup semi-final defeat at the hands of AEK by earning themselves another shot at the big time. The notorious Toumba Stadium will be the venue for their home matches and was the setting for ugly scenes in that aforementioned match with AEK, when PAOK's fans invaded the pitch at the end of the game after their side were sent crashing out on aggregate.

Those scenes were perhaps as bad as those witnessed in the recent Greek Cup final, though they attracted less media attention outside of Greece because of the grandeur of the occasion this past weekend. A pitiful one-match stadium ban was handed out to the club despite fans bypassing stadium security and attacking the AEK players, which sets a dangerous precedent for the play-offs.

One can't fault the majority of PAOK fans for their fanaticism and it has been the bane of many a visitor both local and foreign in the past, giving the northerners an edge that their opponents simply can't boast.

Olympiakos Volou are the lesser-known of the four sides competing and have been the surprise package of the Super League this season. Their chairman Achilleas Beos is a controversial character, recently at the centre of a corruption scandal whereby he was accused of influencing Greek referees. The charges have since been dropped as they were not lodged within a month of the date on which Beos' actions allegedly took place.

It would be an incredible story notwithstanding if Volou were to qualify for the Champions League play-offs given their relative lack of reputation and the fact that they were playing in Greece's second tier last season.

However, these play-offs are always a test in quality of depth for the sides that take part and, in that regard, one cannot look past Panathinaikos as the clear favourites. Despite never looking convincing in their failed title defence, they were nonetheless the only side who had the tools to meaningfully challenge Olympiakos and have enough match-winners to get the points needed to finish top.

They, in fact, start with three points as a result of their second-place finish in the league, with AEK on one and PAOK and Volou on none. Already the latter are on the back foot but as Atromitos showed before they were dispatched by AEK in the cup final, this season has been anything but predictable in Greece, both on and off the pitch.

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