Olympiacos FC have won 15 of the last 17 Greek titles – but PAOK FC are determined to break the Piraeus team's Super League stranglehold.
Motivation is seldom a problem for the Salonika side, whose last championship came in 1985. But this time they also have the means, and their biggest signing will be on the bench.
In June, PAOK unveiled Dutchman Huub Stevens as their coach. The 59-year-old has worked at clubs in Germany, the Netherlands and Austria but made his name between 1996 and 2002 with FC Schalke 04, winning the 1997 UEFA Cup and two German Cups. Stevens had a second spell in Gelsenkirchen until last December and will be quickly reunited with Schalke when PAOK face them in the UEFA Champions League play-offs.
"I was given the opportunity to work at a historic club with high expectations – I don't need more motivation than that," Stevens, a former Dutch international defender, told UEFA.com.
It was not just his trophy-winning pedigree that brought Stevens to PAOK president Zisis Vryzas's attention. "He believes in hard work and discipline," Vryzas said during the coach's unveiling. "These two characteristics have been missing at PAOK in recent years, along with team spirit and individual quality."
They paid for it dearly last season: Georgios Donis's men were beaten in the Greek Cup semi-finals by Asteras Tripolis FC, and also dropped too many points against theoretically weaker league opponents to finish a distant second behind Olympiacos. Can Stevens turn things around?
"I want everything to revolve around team-work – our organisation, our spirit, our performances," he said. "Nobody is above the team. Our objective is to be competitive and win every match. At the end of the season, we will see how effective we were and how far we have gone."
PAOK have already gone pretty far in the last 12 months, financial problems put behind them thanks to investment from a Russian backer of Greek origin, Ivan Savvidis. Not only have things been stabilised off the pitch – avoiding the fate of AEK Athens FC, absent from the top flight for the first time after dropping to the third tier, and struggling Panathinaikos FC – but quality signings have boosted the squad. Witness the recent loan arrivals of Miroslav Stoch and Tomáš Necid to rival Olympiacos's addition of Javier Saviola.
Yet while Stevens is an optimist, he remains realistic. "We want to be league contenders, but we are not alone in desiring that silverware. We will do our best to be the ones still standing next May, but we can’t promise anything. It remains to be seen if our efforts will be rewarded with results. I want my players to have high aims and high hopes, but I also need them to be aware of the difficulties these present."
On Saturday, PAOK kick off their campaign against Skoda Xanthi FC at Stadio Toumba, home to arguably the most fervent supporters in Greek football. "They are really warm and demonstrative," Stevens said. "In a recent training session at Toumba, there were 12,000 people cheering the team. It's important to keep them on our side."
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