Preview: Panathinaikos vs. Braga

Preview: Panathinaikos vs. Braga

Protecting a slender 2-1 lead from the first leg of their Champions League qualifying playoff tie, Braga make the arduous journey to Greece to meet Panathinaikos in Tuesday’s return encounter.

Artur Jorge’s men were seconds away from taking a two-goal lead to Athens, but a last-gasp response from Panathinaikos has the Greek giants in with a strong chance at salvation.

With a full eight days to rest and recuperate from their thrilling penalty-shootout triumph over Marseille in round three, Panathinaikos had little to fear when they met Braga at Estadio Municipal, and Ivan Jovanovic’s men managed to keep their hosts at bay until the half-time whistle sounded.

However, the Shamrock’s defensive resilience was eventually broken through Abel Ruiz before Alvaro Djalo doubled Braga’s advantage, but with five minutes of injury time on the clock, Daniel Mancini came up with a potentially priceless response to reduce the arrears.

Panathinaikos will not benefit from the abolished away goals rule on Tuesday night, but Jovanovic’s side are not down-and-out by any means, and a comprehensive 3-0 Greek Super League win over Volos at the weekend served as the perfect warm-up to their imminent continental contest.

Adam Gnezda Cerin, Fotis Ioannidis and Benjamin Verbic’s strikes ensured that Panathinaikos would kick off their new domestic campaign on the right foot, and it is now 12 games without defeat for the Shamrock at their Athens headquarters since a 3-0 beating at the hands of PAOK in January.

By successfully overturning their first-leg deficit, Panathinaikos would enter the draw for the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2010-11 campaign, but even if Jovanovic’s side cannot upset the odds, a return to Europa League football after a seven-year absence would still represent considerable progress.

In contrast, Braga have regularly emerged onto the field to the Europa League anthem on Thursday nights – taking part in the continent’s secondary tournament in each of the last four seasons – but a Champions League homecoming is now within touching distance.

Jorge’s side made light work of Serbian foes Backa Topola in the third qualifying round with a crushing 7-1 aggregate victory, while they also recovered from a sticky start to their Primeira Liga campaign before overcoming Panathinaikos last week, defeating Chaves 4-2 away from home.

While their upcoming foes did have domestic matters to concern themselves with at the weekend, Braga have been blessed with a hiatus from Primeira Liga action to prepare for a taxing trip to Athens, where history will also be on their side.

Indeed, the Archbishops’ only two Champions League proper appearances so far have come from the qualifying path, as they overcame Sevilla 5-3 over two legs at this stage in 2010, two years before a tense penalty-shootout win over Udinese, although the less said about their group-stage records on both occasions the better.

Panathinaikos Champions League form:

Panathinaikos form (all competitions):

Braga Champions League form:

Braga form (all competitions):

We say: Panathinaikos 1-1 Braga (Braga win 3-2 on aggregate)
Needing to cling onto a slender advantage at a stadium where Panathinaikos are seldom outclassed, an injury to Al-Musrati is exactly what the doctor did not order for Braga, who may have to adopt a more cautious approach with the Libyan absent.

Jorge’s difference-makers in the final third can still create something out of nothing if needed, and while most of Panathinaikos’ big-hitters are well-rested, a low-scoring draw will suffice for the Archbishops.

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