Massive win in Agrinio vital for the confidence of a young and stuttering Panathinaikos team
AGONAsport’s Panathinaikos contributor, Nick Tsambouniaris, assesses where things went wrong for Panathinaikos in a horror January that ended on a high, courtesy of a vital confidence boosting win over Panetolikos.
Panathinaikos have struggled since the turn of the year as the youthful and largely inexperienced team looks a shadow of its old self at times. A dip in form at some point this season was widely expected given the surrounding circumstances, but the recent results in January against lesser teams, with all due respect, would have left Giorgos Donis worried with the bigger derbies that lay ahead.
The Greens started 2019 with a shock loss at Lamia in the first leg of the Greek Cup Round of 16. This was followed up by a gut wrenching 2-2 draw at OAKA against Xanthi. Lamia have well and truly proven to be a bogey team as they once again emerged victorious in the league fixture between the two sides a week later. The team bounced back and won 1-0 in the second leg of the Greek Cup tie, but were eliminated on penalties in rather embarrassing fashion, when they were expected to breeze into the quarterfinals. Ten-men Larissa then came from behind to frustrate the Greens in a painful 1-1 draw in league play.
As a result, the fixture in Agrinio against a notoriously tricky Panetolikos outfit well-drilled by Traianos Dellas loomed as a massive litmus test. Donis opted to change the system to a 3-5-2, away from a conventional back four, in search of a much needed win. Thankfully, this paid dividends as the team looked more assured in defence and the overall organisation was there for all to see.
Ousmane Coulibaly, Fanis Marvomatis, and Dimitris Kolovetsios were rock solid as the hosts struggled to get in behind. Wing backs Mattias Johansson and Emanuel Insua were also pivotal in the win, with the latter putting in a man of the match shift. Even after the dubious second yellow card Ergys Kace received, the team barely looked threatened, with Dioudis only being significantly tested via set pieces.
This assured defensive performance meant the attackers only needed to produce one moment of brilliance to return to Athens with the three points. This happened when Tasos Chatzigiovannis made a direct, surging run at a retreating defence and spotted a free Federico Macheda, who then expertly picked out Giannis Bouzoukis in the penalty box with a well-weighted low cross that was begging to be tucked away.
This win in Agrinio has to be the turning point in what proved to be a mini slump of sorts for Panathinaikos. Psychology is always vital in sport, but even more so in this case given the youthfulness and subsequent inexperience of the squad. The next run of fixtures see Donis’ troops face Levadiakos, PAS Giannina, Asteras Tripolis, and Panionios. All very winnable matches but there will need to be further improvement.
Furthermore, a good run of form over the next four rounds will enable the Trifylli to close in on a top five finish, if not push on in an attempt to claim fourth spot ahead of Atromitos. Although the team struggled in January, a top four finish is very much within the realms of possibility given the unpredictable nature of the Greek Super League.
However, for this to happen, Panathinaikos will undoubtedly need a bit of luck that went astray in a poor January. The absence of a leader in the form of Dimitris Kourbelis proved to be catastrophic. The 25-year old is the talisman and undisputed leader in the dressing room, and him not being on the pitch in testing circumstances, saw the team crumble. On top of this, he is a rock in the middle of the pitch when sitting in front of the back line, shielding them from danger and distributing the ball to start attacks from the engine room. It is no coincidence his return to action against Panetolikos came in the match where the team won for the first time in the league in 2019.
Donis also admitted in a press conference the amount of injuries cost the the team dearly. In the away leg of the cup tie against Lamia, Donis did not have enough players at his disposal to fill a bench, such was the injury crisis. It cannot come as a surprise that a dip in form coincided with injury after injury building up.
Israeli Omri Altman has returned to action following the horror injury he received almost a year ago in the dying embers of the second derby against Olympiacos last season. However, Donis hoped to have Frenchman Anthony Mounier fit and firing in 2019. When fit and in form, there are not many wingers better than Mounier in the league but injury has clearly hampered the player and as a result, it has taken away a massive creative outlet from the wide areas. The signing of Greek-Australian Panos Armenakas on a free transfer highlights Donis’ awareness of the need to have fit and creative wingers at his disposal to bring another dimension to the team’s attacking style.
Finally, controversial refereeing decisions have also played a part in a few underwhelming results. Xanthi equalised late in the match at OAKA where the Greens dominated via a penalty awarded in the 94th minute for a challenge that could have gone either way. The worst call in January came in the home match against Larissa where Macheda was clearly held from behind when attempting to poke the ball into an open net late in the dying minutes. The players, bench, fans ,and commentators were in disbelief when no penalty was given. Even in the win over Panetolikos, the second yellow card Ergys Kace received was rather soft to say the least.
The players cannot allow this to affect their morale following the vital win over Panetolikos. The focus must remain on internal factors within the team’s control. Donis made it known his players were rushing attacks instead of being patient in search for a goal, and the overall attitude has dropped off where players were playing at “20-30% compared to the start of the season.” The match against Larissa was the perfect case in point, where it seemed as though many players thought the game was over after the second minute when Panathinaikos was ahead and playing against 10-men Larissa, instead of attempting to play football for the remainder of the game in search of more goals.