It was only a month ago when Panathinaikos was the fourth favourite for relegation according to most of Greece’s biggest betting agencies. It may have been an overreaction but nonetheless, not many Panathinaikos fans would have been confident of success.
With the team starting on -6 with a young, inexperienced squad and a new coach, the technical director working under a transfer embargo (being only able to primarily sign Greeks under 23), moving away from the spiritual home of Leoforos to OAKA, and facing endless uncertainty off the pitch, not much was expected of the Greens in season 2018-19.
However, the opening weeks of the season have been nothing short of sensational. Any talk of potential relegation has already been put to bed, and now the most important thing is keeping the expectations in check and remaining grounded. As expected, the media is hyping the talented youngsters up, but the players and fans cannot read too much into this. The classic cliche “one week at a time” has never been more truer.
At the end of the day, the Greens are yet to beat any opposition of note and the real tests await – they will play Olympiakos, AEK and PAOK in 3 successive games in a period of 20 days. Depth is also an issue as expected. In spite of all of this, the fans finally have a team to love.
Young guns have been unearthed. Tasos Chatzigiovannis has taken his game to a new level after a quiet season in 2017-18. It is no coincidence either, playing with fellow young and hungry footballers whom he has a great chemistry with. Giannis Bouzoukis has probably been the pick of the lot after the first 3 games. He possesses a maturity beyond his years. Dimitris Emmanouilidis has taken the Championship by storm with his passion and endless running and energy. It is mind boggling to think he was born in the year 2000. After getting his first senior goal, the only way is up. Theofanis Mavromatis has received his chance in defence earlier than expected and Paschalis Staikos is already part of the leadership group despite being a youngster.
It is still early days, but the transfer ban may have been the best thing to happen to the club. It has forced a shakeup from the bottom up which many fans had been calling for, for some time. It is refreshing to see a Panathinaikos team bleed for the shirt with youngsters who understand the weight of the shirt and a manager who gets it.
In amongst all of this, Giorgos Donis can feel a tad hard done by for not receiving the adulation his players are. Afterall, he is the mastermind behind all of this. He appears to be more tactically flexible than his predecessor Marinos Ouzounidis, who cut a frustrated figure for the most part of last season. Donis has a Plan B and is bold in his decision making. As a result, the Trifylli has already won 2 away games, a feat that was not achieved until the back end of last season. This time round, it has happened by September. Donis’ tactics have been at the forefront. Both Xanthi and Larissa played high lines defensively and Panathinaikos picked both apart with relative ease. The pace and technique of the kids being the telling factor.
This confidence and boldness of Donis has rubbed off on the squad. The goal scored by Swedish fullback Mattias Johansson being a case in point, where he dribbled past a host of players like they did not exist before calmly finishing. He was hit and miss last season, not really taking off, however, he looks much improved under Donis. The same can be said of goalkeeper Sokratis Dioudis so far as too. He is commanding his area nicely and has already attracted an interest from European clubs. Dimitris Kourbelis has grown even more into a solid leader and seasoned professional.
The one thing that fans should take comfort in is that the best is yet to come. The kids will grow with every game they play but we have not seen the best of Argiris Kampetsis, Nikos Vergos and Federico Macheda. The upcoming game against Levadiakos would be the perfect opportunity for Macheda to build his confidence.
In fact the next 2 games will give the young Greens a great chance in picking up 5 wins from the first 5 games. Since both are at home, that has to be the aim. To do this, the team must continue to play with freedom and no fear. As for the fans, there can be no excuse for not turning up now, for years, many called for Greek kids to be given a chance. Now that it has happened and the results are matching the performances, fans must be by the team’s side.
One game at a time, but it is hard not to love this team and manager.