The Greek league leaders face the unenviable task of slowing FC Porto's momentum.
By Matt Gatward
The leaders of the Greek and Portuguese leagues meet on Thursday at Das Antas in what promises to be an intriguing UEFA Cup quarter-final first-leg tie. FC Porto, who are flying high in the Portuguese Super Liga with a 13-point lead, play host to Panathinaikos FC who have a three-point lead over Olympiakos Piraeus FC in Greece.
Porto's recent form has been sensational and they are looking like the team to beat in this year's competition. José Mourinho's side have been particularly impressive in their first-leg matches in the UEFA Cup, ensuring their progress at the earliest opportunity. They beat Poland's KP Polonia Warszawa 6-0 in the first round, first leg; in the third round RC Lens of France were brushed aside 3-0 and in the fourth round Denizlispor of Turkey were beaten 6-1.
Porto have also been irresistible on the domestic front, with a league record of 20 wins, three draws and just one defeat. In their last match they virtually decided the destiny of the title with a 1-0 victory over rivals SL Benfica. José Mourinho's side then reached the semi-finals of the Portuguese Cup by beating Varzim SC 7-0.
One of the architects of their success has been the Brazilian-born playmaker Deco, who is now eligible to play for Portugal and has scored several vital goals, including the winner against Benfica, and created many more. One beneficiary of Deco's artistry has been the 19-year-old striker Hélder Postiga, who has scored regularly during Porto's Cup run, including two in the rout of Warsaw.
In contrast, Panathinaikos have had to battle every inch of the way to the last eight. In the last round, the Greek side beat RSC Anderlecht 3-2 on aggregate but were hanging on at the death despite having earned a 3-0 first-leg advantage with two goals from Emmanuel Olisadebe and one from Nikos Lyberopoulos, the club's leading scorer and main danger.
Despite their elevated position, Sergio Markarian's side's league form has also been patchy - a 0-0 draw in their last match against Panionios GS gave Olympiakos a chance to close the gap at the top, although the champions failed to take advantage by losing 2-1 to AEK Athens FC.
Porto will also have the psychological advantage of having beaten Panathinaikos the last time they met, a year ago almost to the day, in the UEFA Champions League second group stage. Porto won 2-1 with Deco again scoring. However, it was Panathinaikos who qualified for the quarter-finals, while Porto finished bottom of the group.
'We must score'
"Porto are a very good team," Markarian said, "they have rhythm and they press relentlessly. We are ready for the task, but we must concentrate to get the result. We must reduce spaces and score a goal that will make our job easier in the second leg. A draw will be more than welcome, but we must score."
Bassinas will be crucial
Panathinaikos will use a 4-4-2 formation, instead of their usual 3-5-2, to try to cope with Porto's attacking style. The only doubt for Markarian is an injury to winger Joonas Kolkka. With Pantelis Konstantinidis suspended Eric Lincar stands by to replace Kolkka. Defensive midfield player and captain Angelos Bassinas is fit and will be crucial if Panathinaikos are to put a dent in Porto's incredible season.