When Manchester United drew Olympiakos in the Champions League last 16 they were considered ideal opponents by many. But the truth is there's a growing belief in Greece that an upset could be on the cards. Greek football expert George Tsitsonis gives FourFourTwo the lowdown on his nation's dominant club…
Hailing from the port city of Piraeus - just a few short miles from Athens - Olympiakos may have a rich domestic history, but their record in Europe hasn’t been anywhere near as glittering. At one point, the club were something of a laughing stock among fans of other Greek teams thanks to a winless away record in the Champions League that stretched to 31 games until a 3-1 victory over Werder Bremen in 2007.
In recent seasons there has been notable improvement, with Champions League knockout stage appearances against Chelsea in 2008 and Bordeaux in 2010. Both those ties ended in defeat, which means that at the Karaiskakis Stadium on Tuesday the club will still be searching for their first-ever win in the last 16.
The Greek giants will try to emulate their performance in the competition from the 1998/99 season, when they advanced to the quarter-finals of the tournament and met Juventus. With Olympiakos minutes away from a place in the final four, Antonio Conte’s fortuitous strike sent Juve through at the Greeks' expense.
The 40-time champions can point to some similarities with their latest Champions League adversaries. Both clubs have suffered terrible tragedies, for starters. United had to endure the Munich air disaster in 1958, while the Greek club grieved the deaths of their own supporters in the Karaiskakis Stadium disaster of 1981, when 21 people were crushed to death trying to exit the old Karaiskakis Stadium after a league match against AEK.
Like United, Olympiakos have been used to dominating on the domestic front in recent times. They are known as Thrylos, meaning ‘legend’, and their success over the last 20 years could certainly be described as legendary. After enduring a barren period without a league title from 1988 to 1997, they have been all but invincible on the domestic scene since. The club have lost only two league titles (2004 and 2010, both to Panathinaikos) since 1997, winning seven domestic doubles along the way.
This success has come about due to the club’s healthy financial state. Businessman Sokratis Kokkalis took over the presidency in 1993 and oversaw great success in his 18 years in charge. Now at the helm is shipping magnate Evangelos Marinakis, who has kept the club on solid ground despite the Greek economic collapse.
For a long time, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos and AEK were all perennial challengers for the Greek title, yet in recent times, a bit like Celtic in Scotland, Olympiakos winning the league has become something of a formality.
AEK chose to drop to the third division in order to write off massive debts, while ‘eternal enemies’ Panathinaikos have also been beset by financial issues and forced to sell off key players. PAOK, from the northern city of Thessaloniki, have emerged as Olympiakos’ newest rival, but despite their fanatical fanbase, in truth they haven’t managed a sustained title challenge.
Historically there has been an attacking philosophy at Olympiakos, just like at United. So much so that even in times of success the media and fans have slammed the team if the football on offer was not attractive enough.
Though financial stability has been a key ingredient in the club’s success, the managerial position has not been such a safe haven. There have been 22 coaching changes since the turn of the millennium – clearly one area where the philosophy vastly differs to Manchester United’s.
The expectations to win at Olympiakos are massive, and the resulting pressure enormous. Slovenian manager Srecko Katanec famously asked the media what all the fuss was about when the club was chasing a historic seventh consecutive league title back in 2003. He lasted less than three months.
Current boss Michel knows full well about the pressure of the Olympiakos job. The former Real Madrid star has been with the club for over a year and is unbeaten in the league with 31 wins and four draws. Yet at the beginning of the current season he was under intense pressure, because although the results were there, the team were falling short when it came to picking up style points. Matters improved and at the moment he has the full support of the board and fans. Michel has already bagged one domestic double, but now he’s chasing success in Europe.
In a Champions League group that also included Paris Saint-Germain, Benfica and Anderlecht, Michel’s men were inconsistent – though when they shone they were highly impressive. They were defensively naïve in their opener against PSG, yet generally more solid from that point onwards. They ultimately owed a lot to their Spanish goalkeeper, Roberto, who put in a series of sensational displays. The former Atletico Madrid player was subsequently rewarded with a lucrative contract.
The sale of Kostas Mitroglou to Fulham in January left a massive void up front. This was supposed to be remedied by the acquisition of Nelson Valdez on loan from UAE side Al-Jazira, but the Paraguayan will miss Tuesday’s first leg due to injury, as will the club’s most recognisable player, Argentine Javier Saviola. The ace in the pack may be 21-year-old attacker Michael Olaitan. With 11 goals since December, the pacey Nigerian has been in fantastic form and has quickly risen to prominence.
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Other attacking threats include Spaniard David Fuster, who customarily scores in the big matches, and Alejandro ‘Chori’ Dominguez, a journeyman playmaker who has scored nine goals this season. A new acquisition, winger Hernan Perez, has the speed and trickery to cause United some grief on the left flank.
Perhaps the most dangerous player in the squad is Costa Rican Joel Campbell. The on-loan Arsenal wide-man has been a revelation since his arrival in Greece over the summer, and Olympiakos are determined to land him on a permanent deal. The team’s Greek core includes emerging talents such as defender Kostas Manolas and midfielder Andreas, as well as national team stalwarts Giannis Maniatis, Jose Holebas and Avraam Papadopoulos. Of particular interest to United supporters will be the presence of former Red Devils goalkeeper Roy Carroll, who is now Olympiakos' third-choice keeper.
The club’s greatest strength may, however, be their home support. The atmosphere inside the Karaiskakis is second to none, and it will surely be rocking for such a big match. The interest in this tie is so huge that fans crashed the club’s official website with more than 200,000 ticket requests on the day they became available.
Current Nottingham Forest player Matt Derbyshire knows all about the club's home fans, having played at the club for two seasons. “With their supporters, Olympiakos can make it difficult for United and get a result which would give them hope for the return leg,” said the forward.
Aside from a susceptible back-line, Olympiakos’s biggest weakness is something they have no control over. The low quality of the Greek Super League means this is not a team seriously tested on a weekly basis.
Win or lose against Manchester United, Olympiakos will remain the undisputed kings of Greek football. The question is now whether they can translate that domestic dominance into something special in Europe. Qualifying for the last 16 is an achievement to be lauded, but this is an ambitious side who are hungry to take an even bigger step.
Michel, for one, believes his side are capable of an upset. While he paid tribute to the English champions and showed his excitement at playing at “the mythical ground of Old Trafford”, he sent a clear message that Olympiakos will be willing to go toe-to-toe with the three-time European champions.
“We respect Manchester United but our aim is to become like them one day. Call me crazy, but I fear no opponents," said the former Sevilla boss. Against a team that have nothing to lose, United, especially in their current state, must be mindful of the threat the Greek champions pose.