Tuesday, April 21, 2009

League Spotlight: Greece / Super League

Though the Greek Super League is a competition for sixteen teams, historically speaking you need only concern yourself with five that have ever done anything of note. Actually, make that two. Come to think of it, in recent terms you can probably round that down to one. There, that's made things nice and simple.

Yes folks, apart from Olivia Newton-John, the only thing to come out of Greece with any lasting reputation is Olympiacos. (OK we admit - that joke works better aurally than in written text, but what the hey...)

Over the last thirteen seasons, Olympiacos has won the league twelve times (pausing only to allow Panathinaikos a moment of glory in 2004). 'Legend', as they're known with some justification, hold the record for the most title wins at 36 and as we approach the last week of the 2008/09 season, Olympiacos have already made certain of title number 37.

It's a formidable record for a team that between 1984 and 1996 only won the Alpha Ethniki (as it was known then) once. Yet from the moment the Greek championship came to life in 1927, Olympiacos quickly made their presence felt and continue to do so today.

These days, the team features the goalscoring talents of Argentinean Luciano Galletti (signed from Atletico Madrid in 2007), veteran Polish international defender Michael Zewlakow and Blackburn Rovers' very own Matt Derbyshire, loaned out to the Greek champions in January this year. He's already scored four goals in six league appearances and with that kind of goals per game average it's a wonder Blackburn haven't brought him back sooner, given their Premier League position at the moment.

Despite being the top dogs in their own country, Olympiacos struggled this season to make much of an impact in Europe. Joining the Champions League in the Third Qualifying Round, they were immediately knocked out by Cypriot team Anorthosis Famagusta, 3-1 on aggregate. Ironically, Anorthosis became the first Cypriot team to make the group stage of the Champions League and came bottom of Group B, the winners of which were Greece's second most successful team, Panathinaikos.

'The Greens' are currently third in the Super League but could overtake PAOK Saloniki to finish second if they manage to beat already-relegated OFI Crete this Sunday. Either way, they're assured a place in the complicated end of season play-offs that will determine who gets to enter next season's Champions League at the Third Qualifying Round stage.

This shouldn't pose a problem for Panathinaikos who joined the Champions League in the Second Qualifying Round this year and knocked out Dynamo Tblisi and Sparta Prague before topping Group B ahead of Inter, Werder Bremen and Anorthosis. Sadly for them, Villareal were waiting to bring that impressive run to an end in the first knockout round, but nonetheless they showed a capability to up their game when facing European opposition.

Finishing the 2008/09 Super League season with a fine run of form are the aforementioned PAOK who fell just short of getting their first title since 1985. Led by Sérgio Conceição at the ripe old age of 34, PAOK failed to grab a win over Olympiacos or Panathinaikos but have remained unbeaten at home all the while as they surged back to the top end of the Super League following their ninth place finish last season.

Elsewhere, AEK Athens look good for a Europa League place next season, largely thanks to the current top scorer in the Super League, Ismael Blanco. The Argentinean has bagged fourteen in the current campaign and with a ratio of two goals in every three games since he joined AEK in 2007, we can expect to see his star rise yet further in the future, albeit probably elsewhere in Europe.

To complete your need-to-know guide to the Greek Super League, we end with Larissa, a team that were champions once and once only back in 1988. They'll be hoping to snatch the final play-off spot ahead of Aris this weekend and should do so thanks to a squad that boasts Maciej Zurawski (recent favourite of Celtic fans) and Laurent Robert (popular with followers of Newcastle United, Portsmouth and, er, Derby).

Much more than that is largely insignificant thanks to the dominance of the big clubs in Greece. What's odd is that Greek clubs don't do better in the Champions League and UEFA Cup, given their consistency and superiority on the domestic front. With a wealth of players arriving all the time from South America, Africa and the rest of Europe, it wouldn't be so irrational to believe that that could all change in the near future, but for now it remains a league desperate to be taken seriously.

And perhaps that's just as well. There is, after all, only so many jokes involving John Travolta that a bunch of amateur writers like us can produce in one sitting.

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