UEFA EUROPA LEAGUE: On Monday afternoon, Olympiacos were draw against Ukrainian giants Dynamo Kyiv in the Last 32 of the 2018/2019 UEFA Europa League. AGONAsport analyses the Thrylos’ next European opponents.
Justice for Olympiacos in a much needed night for Greek football
AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis talks about Olympiacos’ magnificent win over AC Milan which was not only beneficial to the Piraeus club, but for the image of Greek football as a whole.
Thursday was a memorable and historic day for Olympiacos, as they dispatched AC Milan 3:1 at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium to advance to the Last 32 of the UEFA Europa League. Although AC Milan are not the team of the past, the club is still considered a European powerhouse with many domestic titles and seven UEFA Champions League trophies to their name. They were rightfully considered the favorites to top the group after the draw, housing world class players such as Gonzalo Higuain, Suso, Alessio Romagnoli and Gianluigi Donnarumma, while having an overall market value of 500 million euros, almost ten times that of Olympiacos’ (60 million).
It’s just the Europa League...
Some consider (for example Olympiacos official Savvas Theodoridis) Thursday night’s achievement as the biggest qualification in club history. The Piraeotes have enjoyed great success in Europe over the last decade having qualified for the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League three times (2007/2008, 2009/2010, 20013/2014) and the Europa League knockout stages on multiple occasions. However, Thursday night’s feat was extra special, even though it came in Europe’s second tier competition.
The UEFA Europa League (formerly the UEFA Cup) is not the ‘easy’ competition it used to be. UEFA’s restructuring of the Champions & Europa League have made the latter a much more difficult and prestigious competition, and it will only gain in ‘value’ when UEFA add on a third club competition in a few years. Take Olympiacos’ Europa League group for example, with AC Milan and Real Betis, two teams that could comfortably compete successfully in the Champions League. The Greek side received this difficult group despite being seeded in pot one (the theoretical group favorite) going into the draw.
Looking forward, the Last 32 of the competition includes many premier European clubs such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Zenit Saint Petersburg, Inter Milan, Napoli, Benfica, Valencia, Sporting Lisbon, Shakhtar Donetsk, teams that could easily be found in the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. The tournament gains extra importance as the winner automatically secures a place in the following year’s UEFA Champions League group stages, which means plenty of prestige and money is at stake.
The ever growing difficulty of the Europa League makes Thursday night an historic one for the Thrylos. Another big-named European club fell at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in what was a do-or-die match for both teams. To add an extra twist to the special night, the Thrylos knew that just the three points weren’t enough, as they needed to win by two or more goals to advance to the next round. Olympiacos’ ability to achieve a 3:1 victory over Milan truly makes it a memorable win in their already great history.
Justice for Olympiacos
Olympiacos deserved the result on Thursday night and finally justice was served for the club that is playing the best football in Greece. Although the Erythrolefki find themselves second in the Greek SuperLeague behind PAOK, their season has been masked by the countless wasted opportunities to score in front of goal in both domestic and continental fixtures. Their lack of a prolific striker, like PAOK’s Aleksandar Prijovic, is the sole reason why Olympiacos are not leading the SuperLeague table. Thankfully, Olympiacos will look to solve this issue during the winter transfer window.
The Reds are playing fantastic football under coach Pedro Martins and the administration's patience, especially from owner Evangelos Marinakis, is paying off. Hopefully, gone are the days were a couple bad results would result in a coach receiving the sack. This is a ‘small club’ mentality and Olympiacos, who are a huge organisation, have a plan to return to the top of Greek football and they are sticking to it, something which paid dividends on the European stage on Thursday.
All the ‘bad luck’ this season in front of goal was pushed aside against AC Milan, which was needed if the Greeks were to defeat the Italians by two or more goals. The hosts, however, did waste many opportunities early on and it looked as if it was going to be another one of those nights where chances went begging. Hope was given when Cisse notched in the first goal, and once Guilherme’s deflected effort luckily found the back of the net, fans felt that the ‘curse’ of this season’s bad luck was not going to stand in the way of a memorable night at the Karaiskakis stadium. They were right, it wasn’t, despite Milan finding the all-important away goal just minutes after Olympiacos doubled their lead.
Thankfully, French referee had the karidia to point to the spot late on when Vasilis Torosidis was brought down in the box when going up for a header, a call that you rarely see when a club like Olympiacos is facing a giant like Milan in a critical matchday six clash. A penalty that if it were given in Greece, would be assumed ‘fixed’ and a wrong call. But, a foul is a foul and the rules of the game call for a penalty and the Frenchman showed true class to award the hosts a spot kick. There was no doubt that Greek football’s current best player, Kostas Fortounis, would step up as captain and find the back of the net from 11-meters to send his team to the next round of the Europa League. With that memorable goal, the Trikala midfielder engraved his name in the Olympiacos history books.
A much needed night for Greek Football
Olympiacos’ win over AC Milan was not only beneficial for the club, but for Greek football as a whole. There is no question that football in Greece, both on a club and international level, has been in a slump in recent years. On the European club level, Greek teams, especially the big names, have failed to perform up to par in recent years in the Champions and Europa League competitions (with a couple of exceptions, Olympiacos in 2016/2017 and AEK 2017/2018) and this has resulted in Greece’s fall in the UEFA Association Club Coefficient Rankings.
This year was just a continuation of Greek football’s recent troubles as AEK finished with six defeats in six matches in the Champions League group stages, while PAOK were handed five losses in a rather easy Europa League group (both Atromitos and Asteras Tripolis were eliminated in the Europa League qualifying rounds). Olympiacos were also expected to be eliminated on Thursday, but thankfully for Greek football, they achieved a massive result that keeps Greece with one representative in Europe moving into 2019.
This outcome is critical in Greece’s fight in the UEFA Association Club Coefficient rankings, which should keep Greece in at least 15th place by the end of the season (currently 13th). If Olympiacos had lost to Milan, the threat of the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Croatia overtaking Greece in the rankings was real. Falling under 15th place means Greece will lose their second representative in the Champions League (only four Greek teams qualify for Europe) and teams would begin in the Champions/Europa League qualifying rounds in late June as opposed to mid July/early August.
Putting aside the coefficient rankings, Olympiacos’ win over Milan gives a morale boost to Greek football as a whole. Greek football fans rejoiced as the Piraeus club took down one of Europe’s most historical teams. Not considering the fans that see Greek football through tunnel vision, it was magnificent to see fans of other teams congratulate Olympiacos for their triumph, putting aside their club differences and acknowledging how important it is to support Greek teams in Europe. Not just for the coefficient rankings, which Greece’s downfall is the reason our club teams continue to suffer in Europe, but for the overall image of Greek football in Europe.
An image that goes far beyond the poor displays on the continental stage. Greek football has been marred by off the field troubles in recent years, something that this and previous Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) administrations have failed to solve. Fan violence, Cup Final behind closed doors, numerous point deductions, financial troubles, a club president storming the pitch with a gun in his holster, Nazi symbols at the Ethniki’s matches...not an image we want or need. Seeing a packed Karaiskakis stadium with an exceptional atmosphere, players in tears celebrating with fans, and the pure joy football brings to us fans is what Greek football should be about.
Yes, Olympiacos’ win over Milan sent alarm bells throughout the continent for the right reasons. It brought some prestige to the country’s footballing reputation that has been lost in recent years. A drowning reputation that involves everything mentioned above and is topped with a national team that has failed to qualify for the last two major competitions. Olympiacos’ ability to defeat AC Milan brought some cheer and small hope to Greek football, that possibly some better days are ahead.