Hibs will have to find a way past the most burgeoning club in Greece if they are to keep alive their bid to make it to the Europa League group stage.
Asteras Tripolis have been ever-present in the Super League over the past 11 years since earning promotion to the top flight for the first time in 2007 and are now established as one of the most pre-eminent teams in the country.
Scottish midfielder Mark Kerr played a small part in the Greek club’s impressive rise when he signed for them in summer 2010. He saw enough during his 14 months in the little town of Tripoli to derive that Asteras were a club heading in the right direction, and has continued to follow their ever-improving fortunes from afar. “The club has been going from strength to strength every year,” Kerr told the Evening News. “They’ve been in the Europa League quite a few times recently and they’re regularly competing high in the league. AEK Athens were relegated a few years ago and Panathinaikos seem to be struggling at the moment but, apart from the season before last (when they finished 13th), Asteras have been consistently up in the top area of the league over the past few years. The fact they’ve been up there so regularly in such a volatile league shows that they’re a stable club being run properly.”
With Greek football having been plagued by turbulence in recent years, Kerr found that Asteras were generally bucking the trend. “It was a great wee club to play for,” he said. “The people looked after me well – there were no horror stories like the ones you sometimes hear when players go to Greece. They really looked after me. They sorted me out with a car and an apartment and I was always paid on time. I can’t speak highly enough of the people at the club when I was there.”
The entire playing squad has changed since Kerr left Greece seven years ago, but the general momentum that has surged through Asteras and helped elevate them several divisions since they kicked off the current millennium in the regional Arcadian league has generally been maintained.
They have finished in the top half of the 16-team Greek Super League in six of the past seven seasons and this will be the fifth time in seven seasons that they have participated in the Europa League, a competition they will be determined to make progress in after reaching the group stage twice.
“They never made it into Europe when I was there – they first qualified for the Europa League the year after I left,” said Kerr. “They had only been promoted a few years earlier, so they were concentrating first on establishing themselves in the Super League first and then trying to get themselves into Europe. They’ve sold a few players and made a bit of money on the back of doing well in the Europa League so it’s a competition they’ll certainly be taking seriously. They’ll want to go as far as they can in the competition.”
As someone with a sound knowledge of both teams, Kerr expects the tie between Hibs and Asteras, which kicks off at Easter Road tomorrow evening, to be tightly contested. He doesn’t envisage the wily Greeks bearing many gifts.
“From Hibs’ perspective, it’s probably better that they are playing at Easter Road in the first because Asteras will be a tough team to play against and that will give them a better chance to size them up,” said the Ayr United veteran. “They’ll be tough to break down. I don’t think there will be a lot of goals and I’d expect it to be a tight tie.”
Asteras are traditionally strong at home, having lost only 16 of their 107 league games at the 7000-capacity Theodoros Kolokotronis Stadium over the past seven years. Although Hibs will face a formidable test in Greece next week, Kerr does not expect Neil Lennon’s team to find the environment particularly daunting.
“The stadium is pretty basic – there are a few areas with no roof,” he explained. “The changing rooms are nothing spectacular and the pitch is quite small. There’s a bit of terracing behind the goal which can get pretty lively when the big clubs come, but the Asteras fans were good when I was there. At some of the other clubs I visited over there, the fans would fire all sorts of things on to the pitch but that didn’t really happen at Asteras. It won’t be particularly intimidating for the Hibs players.”