With fresh investment, astute signings and prodigy Sotiris Ninis in fine form, Panathinaikos FC coach Henk ten Cate can be optimistic about the season ahead.
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For the first time in their 100-year history, Panathinaikos FC have cut short their summer break to begin their European campaign in July. Few, though, will begrudge the early start against FC Dinamo Tbilisi as Henk ten Cate's side look to win a place in group stage of the UEFA Champions League.
Panathinaikos came third in the Greek Super League last season, but finished top of the play-off mini-league to beat AEK Athens FC to a place in the second qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League. They are now setting their sights high in Europe and on the domestic front with many believing that in their centenary year the time is right to break Olympiacos CFP's monopoly on the title. Since May, Panathinaikos, who last won the championship in 2004, have undergone a number of significant changes. For the first time the Vardinoyannis family who own the club have welcomed investment from outside sources and an increased budget has led to the squad being strengthened.
Ten Cate in
Ten Cate has taken over as coach after helping Chelsea FC reach the UEFA Champions League final as Avram Grant's assistant and the 53-year-old has been given carte blanche to rebuild the squad with two goals in mind: to play attractive football in an effort to win back the fans disappointed by Panathinaikos's poor form in recent years, and to get the Trifili into the UEFA Champions League while challenging Olympiacos's dominance in Greece.
"Nobody can predict the future and I don't have a crystal ball," Ten Cate told the club's official magazine. "But I can promise there will be chemistry between the team and the fans. We must return to our winning ways and that chemistry will play a big part in our quest for the league title." As for Panathinaikos's playing style, Ten Cate warned: "I love attacking football, but I'm not crazy. To build a house, you start by the foundations, not the roof. That's why we will begin by securing our defence, then our midfield and afterwards our attack. My players know they all have the right to attack. However, they all have the obligation to defend."
Panathinaikos signalled their intent by signing Brazilian defensive midfielder Gilberto Silva from Arsenal FC, though the 31-year-old FIFA World Cup winner is not expected to feature against Dinamo. They have also brought in two highly-rated youngsters – Croatian Ante Rukavina, 22, from HNK Hajduk Split and 21-year-old Lazaros Christodoulopoulos from PAOK FC. In adddition, Brazilian striker Clayton Silva, right-back Gabriel Rodrigues dos Santos and striker Vangelis Mantzios, who returns from his loan spell with Eintracht Frankfurt, have further bolstered the ranks.
Most exciting of all, though, for Panathinaikos fans is the news that Ten Cate has put his faith in Sotiris Ninis, the 18-year-old prodigy who fell out of favour with former coach José Peseiro last season after bursting on to the scene in 2006/07. Ninis gave further indication of his prodigious talent after coming on as a substitute with the score at 1-1 in a friendly match against R. Charleroi SC last Wednesday, scoring once and setting up three more to earn his side a 5-1 victory. Panathinaikos are still in the market for a striker and defender, but if pre-season is a sign of things to come, the Athens club seem to be on the right track.