PAOK Salonika coach Huub Stevens concedes his team are “big outsiders” to progress to the Champions League group stage ahead of his return to former club Schalke.
Stevens spent seven-and-a-half years, across two spells, at Schalke -- leading the club to UEFA Cup glory in 1997 and falling agonsingly short of lifting the Bundesliga title in 2001 when a stoppage time goal from Patrick Andersson in the last game handed Bayern Munich the crown.
The Dutchman, who was voted Schalke’s 'coach of the century' by the club’s fans, is back at the Schalke Arena for the Champions League play-off first leg on Wednesday night and is plotting the downfall of the Royal Blues.
But Stevens admitted PAOK face an uphill task to progress at the expense of his old club, telling a press conference on Tuesday: “We are the big outsiders. That we are even here I would have never considered possible.
“Schalke is my club. But Salonika also has a place in my heart. It is a great challenge for us and we want to cause a sensation.”
PAOK had lost in the previous qualifying round against Metalist Kharkiv but were reinstated after the Ukrainian side were disqualified by UEFA for their role in domestic match-fixing.
Schalke, who suffered a heavy 4-0 Bundesliga defeat away to Wolfsburg at the weekend, will not let nostalgia get in the way of progress, according to general manager Horst Heldt.
“We aim to be the better team and go through,” he said. “Huub might be Schalke through and through but he’ll be trying to get the better of us on the pitch.”
Midfielder Marco Hoger said PAOK will have an advantage as “he [Stevens] knows our team very well and will prepare his team accordingly”, while Schalke captain Benedikt Howedes added: “Our coach (Jens) Keller has made it clear to us what those two games mean for Schalke. Financially it is very important to reach the group stages. And, of course, us players want to play the big games.”