By Vassiliki Papantonopoulou
Alberto Malesani has not been afraid to instigate change at Panathinakos FC since he took over in February, and the Italian is aiming for a more creative style of play from his youthful, new-look squad as they get their UEFA Champions League campaign under way tonight.
The Greek domestic programme is yet to start but Panathinakos are already facing a hugely important match against Polish side Wisla Kraków in the third qualifying round. And having played only three friendlies in pre-season, there is a danger that they may be under-prepared for the challenge.
But Malesani believes his squad are on course, saying: "We are almost ready for the match against Wisla. The new players need to get adjusted but I like how my team works. We are working on new systems and will try them out this season."
Wholesale changes have occurred recently, with 12 players released, 13 signed and six more promoted from the youth team. Early signs of the rebuilding process have been encouraging for Panathinaikos with positive performances in recent friendlies against UC Sampdoria, AS Roma and Real Zaragoza.
Champions in charge
The midfield has been overhauled with two former European champions now pulling the strings at the heart of the team. Flavio Conceição won the 2002 UEFA Champions League with Real Madrid CF, while Igor Bišcan featured in Liverpool FC's triumph in May.
Both are considered defensive midfielders rather than creative forces, but their distribution and link-up play will be vital. Last season, Panathiaikos's style was arguably too predictable, with an emphasis on crosses, and Malesani insisted on change. He believes in quick passing and movement, with the midfield providing quality service for the strikers while seldom taking the aerial route.
Panathinaikos have also signed Swedish international Mikael Nilsson, Croatian left-back Anthony Seric and goalkeepers Pierre Owono and Mihalis Siimitras. They brought Georgios Theodoridis on board from PAOK FC and also recalled Greece Under-21 duo Vangelis Mantzios and Alexandros Tziolis from loan spells.
One of Panathinaikos's greatest assets this season is their youth: there are only three players over 30 in the squad with an average age of just 25, a characteristic exemplified by the high-tempo playing style they have developed.
Indeed, a spate of injuries mean that youthful slant could become even more visible. Panathinaikos travelled to Poland without suspended playmaker Ezequiel González, while Nilsson and Ioannis Goumas are both injured.
For their part, Wisla Kraków recently lost star man Maciej Zurawski to Celtic FC. They have been eliminated from the UEFA Cup by the likes of Vålerenga IF and FC Dinamo Tbilisi in the past two seasons and coach Jerzy Engel knows his side are up against it. "We have a chance of going through," he said, "but Panathinaikos have made great transfers, and we are facing a very strong team."
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