Nicholas LianosCorrespondent IMay 22, 2010

ROME - FEBRUARY 25: Sotiris Ninis of Panathinaikos celebrates the second goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32, 2nd leg match between AS Roma and Panathinaikos on February 25, 2010 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
Paolo Bruno/Getty Images

When Greek football ended in May of 2009, most fans watched an instant classic for the Greek Cup final between AEK Athens and Olympiacos. Antonios Nikopolidis penalty strike gave Olympiacos the Greek Double and ended the 2008-09 season in classic style.

Olympiacos entered the 2009-2010 the favorite to win yet another title.  Having won every single title since 1997 expect for 2004 (Pananthaniakos) things didn't look like there were going to change.  The Piraeus side side added Spanish defender Raul Bravo, Swedish international defender Olof Mellberg and sured up it midfield with the additions of Enzo Maresca and Christian Ledesma.  These additions to a team with Vasilis Torosidis, and Matt Derbershire and a repeat should be in the cards. New coach Temur Ketsbaia took over for two time winner Ernesto Valverde who was let go after contract negotiations failed.

Panathaniakos finished 2009 in third place but rebounded to win the Greek League playoff ahead of PAOK.  Winning the playoffs gave Panathaniakos a birth into the 2nd round of qualifying in UEFA Champions League.  Not wanting to repeat the poor performance of 2008-09 Pana added French International Djiril Cisse, along with Sebastian Leto, and brought Kostas Katsouranis back to Greece after 5 seasons with Benfica.  Add "the Future of Greek Soccer" Sotiris Ninis, Pana were expected to be right there with Olympiacos.

PAOK after finishing a suprising 2nd in the regular season couldn't keep it magic in the playoffs but earn a spot in the Europa League.  The Saloniki team still trying to recover from some financial difficulties add offensive midfielder Vasilis Koutsianikoulis and Gregorios Fotakis.  With Zlatan Muslimovic having an impressive 2009 season POAK looked to pull yet another shock and crash the Athenian party.

AEK Athens had a season to forget in 2008-09. Having plenty of finacial problems team President Demis Nikolaidis has his hands tied in the transfer market.  Finishing a dissapointing 4th place AEK earned a Europa League spot.  Even with finacial problems AEK did manage to get the services of midfielder Giorgios Makos but for the most part AEK was sellers in the transfer market sending Greek internationals Sotirios Kyriakos to Liverpool and Vasilis Pliatsikas to German team Shalke. 

Other teams to considered for a top half finish included Aris Saloniki, newly promoted team AO Kavala, AE Larisa after finishing fifth in 2008-09 season another top half was expected.

From the start of the season the Superleague looked like it was going to be a two team race between Panathanaikos and Olympiacos as both teams remained unbeaten through 8 games.  Even though both teams started out well in the standings it wasn't enough for new Olympiacos manager to keep his job as he was fired after a few lack luster performances by his team in September.  Temur Ketsbaia lasted only four domestic games and was he was gone. He wasn't the only manager to get canned by the middle of October has six managers were canned before even 8 rounds were played in the Superleague. 

After eight rounds of the Superleague PAO and Olympiacos were both tied with 22 points with third place ten points adrift.  All remaining team expect for Panthrakikos who only had 1 point through eight games were alive for all Europe spots.  With assured of 5 teams playing in European competitions everyone has a shot.

October also had Greece's national team finish second in its group of World Cup qaulifying earning a playoff series against the rest of Europe's group runner ups. Greece drew a November playoff series against Ukraine who four years earlier eliminated them from World Cup qualifying. 

November saw good news for Greek teams as both Olympiacos and Panathaniakos looked to progress in the group stage in European action. Both teams were solidly in 2nd place in their groups with two games remaining needing only a point for each to to progress as they entered December. 

As the Greek National team took center stage in mid November with their home and home series against Ukraine for one of the four remaining European World Cup spots.  The first game in Pireaus saw coach Otto Rehegal use a rather defensive 5-2-3 formation to try to keep a clean sheet before going to Kiev for the return leg.  The ploy worked but Greece might regret missing several opportunities to score and were held to a 0-0 tie. 

The return leg in Kiev was a nail bitter from the opening minutes.The game had excellent back and forth action as both teams came out more aggressively and not wanting to leave it late.  Greece survived the intial ten minute attack from the Ukraine after several key stops from goalie Alexandros Tzorvas.  Greece after surviving the initial wave brought pressure themselves and nearly took the lead at the 25th minute after Dmitiri Salpagidis miss kicked his chance with only the goalie to beat.  A few minutes later Greece went on top after a great through ball from Gerorgios Samaras allowed Salpagidis to run on to it and beat the goalie for a 1-0 lead.  The second half was controlled by the Ukraine and held most of the possession but weren't able to threat Tzorvas again until late in the match but Tzorvas was up to the challenge.  Salpagidis goal was enough and GREECE qualified for the World Cup for the second time in its history.

November ended with the much anticipated game between Olympiacos and arch rival Panathaniakos.  The battle for first place in Piraeus was a one sided affair as Kostas Mitroglou brace for Olympiacos was all they needed as they cruised to a 2-0 victory grabbing first place along the way.  The game also cost PAO Hank Ten Cate his job as he was soon fired and replace by Greek under 21 coach Nikos Nioplias.  This would be the key move to the Greek league as PAO seem to right the ship under Nioplias.

At the halfway point in the season PAO has a slim 2 point lead over Olympiacos with PAOK a distant 10 points off the pace.  Fourth and fifth places were controlled by Asteras Tripolis and Panionios who weren't expected to this high in the table. AEK was still in turmoil lagging in 9th. Other surprises were Aris in 7th place and Larissa near the drop zone in 13th place.  Still with 3rd and 9th place separated by a mere two points anyone could have earned a top five finish. 

Decemeber also saw two Greek teams advance in European Competitions. Olympiacos secured a second place finish in its group including a win over Arsenal to close out the group stage.  A strong showing for the Greek squad earned them a match up with French side Bordeaux. 

PAO continued its excellent play in the Europaleauge and cruised to a second place finish in its group. Having won 4 of six games PAO earned a spot in the round of 32 against AS Roma.  The opposite can be said for AEK who finished last in their group only winning one game out of six finishing with 4 total points.  That closed out the soccer year for Greece in 2009 with many more success stories then expected.

After the Christmas break all team returned to action in January 4/5 with the schedule repeating. PAO extended its lead in its return to five points as Olympiacos stumbled and POAK inched closer to second.  PAO looked to have found rhythm with new coach Nikos Nioplias and with French striker Djiril Cisse riding a incredible goal scoring run of scoring 13 goals in 15 games. PAO continued to extend its lead through the rest of January to six points.  January closed with PAO in first, Olympiacos and PAOK tied for second. 

With only ten games remaining in the Superleague the league was still up for grabs. PAO had a small six point league as Feburary began and with a log jam of games with Europaleague and Greek Cup games they needed to survive a tough stretch run. Having only come way with 4 points in their last 4 games PAO lead from as high as seven was back down to 3 points by the end of round 22.  PAOK and Olympiacos were right behind and knew they couldnt afford another slip up. 

Even with all the struggles in league play PAO played two outstanding games against AS ROMA. PAO won both games against ROMA 3-2. The game in Athens was a see saw affair as Roma twice took a one goal lead befor PAO would tie and then take the lead with yet another goal from striker CIsse.  In Roma PAO were paced by Sotiris Ninis who scored one and set up another 2 goals in a five minute span that allowed PAO to advance to the Round of 16.

Olympiacos season of turnover continued as it was on its third manager by January 20. Having key games against Aris and PAO remaining in league play plus the Round of 16 champions league game ahead OLympiacos needed to right the ship.  In need of a offense Olympiacos added midfielder Jesus Datalo and brought back forward Lomana Lualua. These moves helped close the deficit in league play down to 3 points but they couldn't produce anything against Bordeuax. Bordeuax won in Pireaus 1-0 and sealed their advancement with a 2-1 victory in France ending Olympiacos Champions League dreams.

PAOK put yet another claim for the title beating PAO in Toumba 2-1 closing PAO lead back down to two points. The sell out crowd went crazy after free kick goal by Pablo Garcia gave them a lead at the 60th minute only to have them quited by a goal from Cisse to level the score. An excellent timed run and chip shot from Zlatan Muslimovic gave PAOK the lead that they held onto.  When round 23 ended PAO was in first with Olympiacos and PAOK in second place tie with Olympiacos ahead on goal difference.

March began with a only six games remaining and things still wide open. PAO was in first with a two point lead with PAOK and Olympiacos right behind and AEK and Aris finishing out the top 5.  Olympiacos were the first to stumble losing to Iraklis falling down to third place as both PAO and PAOK won.  PAOK then stumbled against their arch rival Aris losing 2-0, while Olympiacos again lost ground with a tie to 15th place PAS Giannana.  That tie basically ended Olympiacos chance of winning the title and gave PAO who won their game 1-0 a five point lead with 4 games remaining.

While PAO enjoyed success in league play their great run in Europe ended by Standard Leige of Belgium.  Standard outclassed PAO in Athens to a score of 3-1. PAO looked tired an out of form against Leige. The return leg in Belguim was yet another loss for PAO to eliminate them from Europe.  Even though PAO was bounced from one tournament they still had their eyes on the league and cup double. 

PAO schedule got lighter with their elimination from Europaleauge but they continued to advance in the Greek Cup. Having reached the quarterfinals beating 2nd division teams PAO got yet another 2nd Division team in Kallithea.  Kallithea was no match for the top flight leaders and they now faced PAS Gianina in a two round Playoff for the right to get to the final. 

All of these games on PAO schedule didnt matter if they could beat Olympiacos to wrap up the league with a victory in round 27. Things though didn't go as planned as substitute strike Matt Derbyshire lone strike in the 62 minute kept Olympiacos hopes alive for a repeat championship. PAO lead went down to four points with Olympiacos taking over second four points of the pace and PAOK settling into third five points off the lead. 

The final three round of the Superleague wasnt about how PAO was going to win the tittle just when. After securing a win in round 27 PAO needed 5 more points to secure the tittle. An Olympiacos tie against Xanthi and PAO win over Atromitos in round 28 left PAO needing only a tie to win the tittle. 

Round 29 was the coronation of a new champion and it didn't take long for the game to be decided.  PAO's Djibril Cisse scored in the opening minute against Iraklis and added another goal by Sotiris Ninis just before half time. With the win in hand PAO won its first title since 2004 and end Olympiacos six year strangle hold on the title. The chaotic celebration in Athens with fans storming the field trying to get a piece of any PAO player they can get their hands on.

As PAO was putting the final touches to the championship they disposed of PAS Gianina in the Greek Cup semis. PAO scored a 3-1 win at home before settling for a 0-0 tie in Giannina to advance to the final against Aris.

Aris fought and clawed its way to the final having beat three top division teams along the way to the final. Aris beat Asteras in the round of 16, won a replay against Xanthi at home 3-0 in the quarters and then beat Kavala in the semis to get to the final. 

Final touches in PAO championship was a 1-0 win against PAS Giannina. Having nothing to play for the Athenian team played its backups, resting the starters for the Greek Cup final in two weeks.  Olympiacos rebounded to get into second place and PAOK threaten all season slid into third. AEK and Aris rounded out the European spots and all four teams headed to a playoff to see who will the second team in the champions league with the other three teams qualifying for the Europaleague.

The Greek Cup final between PAO and Aris in OAKA was a well played game that saw Aris control much of the early action without putting a quality shot near the PAO goal. Javier Campora missed wide with Aris best chance in the opening 20 minutes. PAO finally got on track after Sotiris Ninis found space and shot a low laser to Michalis Sifakis saved and regroup to save the rebound by Dimitri Salpagidis. The second half was played to a stand still until Sebastian Leto got hold of a ball 30 yards away and unleashed a bouncer to beat the outstretched hands of Sifakis.  That was the only goal and gave PAO its first Cup since 2004.

Playoff round for the four Europe spots between PAOK, AEK, Aris and Olympiacos was over quickly after PAOK opening round tie against AEK.  PAOK then beat Aris, Olympiacos twice and AEK in consecutive matches to win entry into the Champions League. AEK finished in third place after beating Olympiacos on the final round of playoff play.AEK will play in the Europe league playoff round. Olympiacos disaster season continued to spiral out of control as the finished in third place and getting a third round Europe league spot.  Aris finished in fourh getting the 2nd round Europe league spot.

First team all Super League:

G: Alexandros Tzorvas PAO

Leading Panathinaikos to a double earns this spot for Tzorvas. He also earned first team status with the National team with his play.

RB: Raul Bravo Olympiacos

The Spanish import fit right in to the Olympiacos backfield.  He was one of the few bright spots for Olympiacos all season.

CB: Lukas Vyntra PAO

Vyntra emerged this year as a steady performer infront of Tzorvas as a center back. His play earned him call up with the national team.

CB: Stialanos Melezas PAOK

Melezas was a pleasant suprised as the 25 year old was a defensive force for the Salonika side. Melezas play got him to be named to Greece provisional 30 man roster for the World Cup.

LB: Giorgios Tzavellas Panionios

Having appeared in 24 games for the Nea Smyrini side Giorgios helped guide the team to an 8th place finish in the league.  At the age of 23 Giorgios earn his first call up to the National squad with his play. 

DMF: Kostas Katsouranis PAO

Kostas was one of PAO high priced transfers that fit right in. In his return to Greek football Kostas added 8 goals out of the defensive midfield.  One of the Greece's steady performers will earn more caps in South Africa in June.

CMF: Vladamir Ivic PAOK

Ivic is a veteran of the Greek league having already played for AEK and Aris before joining PAOK. The Serbian international scored seven goals including four game winners for the 2nd place squad.

AMF: Tumar Metin Larisa

Turkish international scored seven goals for Larisa in 20010. He was the lone bright spot in Larisa disappointing season.

AMF: Georgios Karagounis PAO CAPTAIN

Stats dont measure Karagounis. He is the heart and soul of both Greece and his club team.  A deft free kick taker Karagounis scored only two goals but you cant count the number of ways he helps a team. Watch one game and you will see.

CF: Javier Campora Aris

The Argentian Campora tallied 11 times for the Salonikan side in the Superleague. Campora finished tied for 2nd in the season total.  Campora has scored 18 goals in 39 greek league games.

Striker:  Djibril Cisse PAO

With a reputation of being a trouble maker Cisse arrived in Athens and became an instant hit. Scoring a remarkable 23 goals in 28 league games and another 5 goals in 8 Europe league games Cisse was well worth 8 million dollar transfer fee and 2.5 million dollar salary. 

Best transfer: Cisse

Best in season move: Firing of Ten Cate by PAO

PAO was unable to win the big game under Ten Cate. That was quickly erased by Nioplias with wins against Roma. 

Surprise transfer: Freddy Adu Aris

Not that Adu isn't a good talent, but how far has he fallen?  Adu is on his fourth European team in 2 years after bouncing around MLS for two years.  Once the prize of American soccer, is the Adu washed up at 21?

Overall it was a great year for Greek Soccer. The national team qualifyied for its 2nd World Cup. Greek teams held their own this some of Europe's elite teams and progressed to knockout phases in European competition.  As of a result of good results PAO will gain an automatic entry to the group phase in the 2010-2011 Champions League. 






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