To say that Thessalonika is eagerly awaiting the second leg of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie between PAOK FC and AFC Ajax would be an understatement. It is the No1 topic of conversation in the seafront cafes of Greece's second city, where the atmosphere is hotter than the 35 degrees suggested by the thermometer. As for tickets for the Toumba stadium showdown, these have been sold out for a week, with most PAOK fans planning their summer holidays around the match.
Wednesday's game is PAOK's 100th in European competition and they will hope to celebrate with a famous victory against the four-time continental champions. The last time PAOK won a European encounter was on 14 December 2005, a 5-1 success over Stade Rennais FC in the UEFA Cup group stage. Following that night, PAOK endured a three-season absence from Europe, followed by an unhappy return last year with a UEFA Europa League play-off defeat by another Dutch side, SC Heerenveen.
The efforts of two members of Greece's triumphant UEFA EURO 2004 squad – player-turned president Theodoros Zagorakis and technical director Zisis Vryzas, who took over in summer 2007 – have helped PAOK get back on back in their domestic competition. Last term, the Thessalonika outfit recorded impressive victories over Olympiacos FC to claim the UEFA Champions League qualifying spot in the end-of-season play-offs.
Since then, PAOK have had to deal with the departure of head coach Fernando Santos after three years at the helm. Mario Beretta took over, but the Italian lasted only a month before he was replaced on 23 July by the 41-year-old Pavlos Dermitzakis. Just six days remained before the first leg away to Ajax when Dermitzakis took charge, leaving him the difficult task of lifting morale after a problem-plagued pre-season.
Yet PAOK survived last Wednesday's trip to Amsterdam with their hopes intact. After limiting the damage of a poor first-half display to a solitary early goal by Ajax's Luis Suárez, the Super League team produced a determined response in the second half and took their chance when it came, equalising 17 minutes from time through Vladimir Ivić. The Serbian attacking midfielder said afterwards: "We were very lucky in the first half, because Ajax had lots of chances to add to their lead. However, against such a tough rival, we got a positive result, and now we believe in ourselves, we believe we can qualify."
Forward Dimitris Salpingidis, who has his Toumba homecoming on Wednesday after four years away at Panathinaikos FC, is optimistic about PAOK's chances. "Nothing is decided yet. At our packed home ground, we will give it our best shot to qualify and give our fans something to shout about." Besides bringing cheer to the supporters, progress to the play-off round would also guarantee the club European football for the autumn and a boost to the finances.
PAOK will have to manage without Greek international goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias who broke a finger 15 minutes into the first leg, but coach Dermitzakis should welcome back Zlatan Muslimović. The Bosnian-Herzegovinian forward is likely to have recovered from the groin injury that prevented him travelling to the Netherlands last week.
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