Panathinaikos FC will look to lead a five-team Greek assault on the group stage as their first round tie against Slovakia's FC Artmedia Petržalka concludes tonight.
The prestige of Greek club football has slipped since the 2003/04 season, when Panathinaikos, Olympiacos CFP and AEK Athens FC all competed in the UEFA Champions League group stage, but the first legs of this season's UEFA Cup first round games saw something of a Hellenic renaissance with all five of the Super League sides involved winning their games to edge closer to the group stage.
"Five victories in as many games is a very positive thing," said Panathinaikos coach José Peseiro. "These victories lift the prestige of Greek football." Striker Dimitris Salpigidis added: "It's a very important accomplishment. I hope that all five clubs can celebrate their qualification to the group stage. That's the way to prove that Greek football is still alive."
Panathinaikos have the chance to lead that charge tonight as they go into the home leg of their tie with a 2-1 advantage, but Brazilian defender Marcelo Mattos still advised caution: "We are the favorites to qualify, but we need to be careful and very focused in the second leg." Should they succeed, four more Greek sides will look to follow them into the group stage on Thursday.
Panionios NFC look to have the easiest ride after earning a 2-0 win in the away leg of their tie against France's FC Sochaux-Montbéliard. Coach Ewald Lienen is not feeling complacent though, saying: "It will be a different game. The French have nothing to lose and they will give it all they've got to turn the tie around. We must remain steady and finish off the job."
AEK coach Lorenzo Serra Ferrer felt similarly wary as he prepared to take a 3-0 lead into his side's tie at FC Salzburg. "We might have achieved a 'safe' score, but the tie isn't over yet. The match in Austria will be different because of the [artificial] pitch." Aris Thessaloniki FC, meanwhile, have a slender 1-0 lead to defend at Real Zaragoza. Serbian midfielder Vladimir Ivić said: "In order to qualify to the group stage, we have to score away in Spain."
Finally, Larissa FC may have earned the most susprising result of all in beating Premier League Blackburn Rovers FC 2-0 at home but captain Nikolaos Dabizas - a former Newcastle United FC player - expects a real test. "We beat Blackburn because everything went well for us and badly for them. I played in England for seven seasons and experience tells me we will be pressurised at Ewood Park."
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