In the aftermath of Greece's UEFA EURO 2004 triumph, Asteras Tripolis FC were preparing for their season in the country's fourth division. By August 2007, the modest Peloponnese club were making their debut in the top flight after three successive promotions, and they took that challenge in their stride defeating Olympiacos FC, Panathinaikos FC, PAOK FC and AEK Athens FC at home on their way to finishing seventh.
With that track record of 'rookie' success, it should hardly have come as a surprise that they came through their first ever European tie last week. It was a tight run thing, though, as they eliminated İnter Bakı PİK on penalties in the UEFA Europa League second qualifying round. Nevertheless, coach Sakis Tsiolis could not confine his joy, telling UEFA.com: "I was so happy for my players and for the town. I also felt immensely relieved, because we deserved qualification based on our performances in both legs."
Tsiolis made sure his side were ready for the prospect of a shoot-out. "Given that these are knockout encounters, we had prepared thoroughly for the possibility of penalties," he added. "The guys were ready, especially mentally – I saw it in their eyes, after extra time. Their focus showed after we missed the first penalty. They didn't get discouraged and turned the situation around."
Now the newcomers take on Portugal's CS Marítimo, playing the first leg at home. Tsiolis said: "They are stronger than İnter Bakı, but I believe we can make the most of our chances. We need to be very solid defensively, but also score. If we manage that, then we will have a good shot in Portugal.
"I am very pleased with the discipline, the defensive work, the intensity and the pace of my team. We need to improve one area, though: against İnter Bakı, we created twice the chances our opponents did, but ended scoring the same amount of goals. We must polish our finishing."
As befits the most recent brave new world Asteras have found themselves in, this is Tsiolis's first campaign as a coach in Europe, but as a player he took part in UEFA competition with the Larissa FC side of the 1980s – the only team based outside Athens or Salonika to win the Greek title. He therefore knows what the club's success means to Tripoli, a town of 45,000 people.
The whole town is excited with Asteras' European adventure and they can't wait for Thursday's match. There is a festive atmosphere, despite the crisis Greece are going through. In football, fans have found a way to escape from their everyday problems."
Asteras is in rude health on and off the pitch giving Tsiolis the belief this could be just the start for a club that has already come a long way. "They have everything covered," he concluded. "They have their own stadium, training centre, they have the best people appointed in every area and the players can focus solely on their game. We feel privileged professionals."
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