After steam-rolling through their first three Greek Superleague opponents to start the 2023-24 campaign, Olympiacos were faced with the task of visiting AEK Athens at the OPAP Arena. Many will look back at this derby and find the many encouraging signs Diego Martinez’s men displayed while others will wonder what could have been had things been a little different.
A Shaky Start
The classical 4-4-1-1 (or call it the 4-2-2-2) that Martinez has utilized to start the season has been fruitful but many had their doubts if this was the best way to go in the first derby road trip of the season. Those who were suspicious were quickly proven right. The current Greek Champions smothered the Legend in the first 20 minutes of the game and the pitch looked like a massive uphill slope. Goalkeeper Alexandros Paschalakis showed some early heroics and has become a true leader for the squad.
Of course, the Erythrolefki had their work cut out for them from the get-go with referee Artur Soares Dias. For a second, I thought I had switched the television from football to Olympic diving. The home side was continuously throwing themselves to the ground and the Portuguese official seemed all too eager to award them countless fouls.
In one of the few times the centerback duo of Panagiotis Retsos and Nicolas Freire were caught napping, Ezequiel Ponce opened up the scoring in the 22nd minute and the Kitrinomavroi were rightfully ahead. And suddenly, the tide changed.
Almost as quickly as turning on a switch, Olympiacos brought the game to AEK as soon as they conceded the goal. Kostas Fortounis was the catalyst for the pushback but he was not alone. Giorgos Masouras, Ayoub El Kaabi and new-acquired familiar face Daniel Podence all pushed forward with the intent to aggressively pressure the home side’s backline and create scoring chances. The tying goal from El Kaabi came in the 38th minute when a cheeky Podence cross was followed by a diving header from the Moroccan international striker.
Immense credit has to be given to Santiago Hezze and Mady Camara. The two midfielders worked tirelessly today and while many pundits felt a trio in the midfield with Vicente Iborra would have been a “safer” option, Hezze and Camara were flawless. They covered a ton of the pitch and never abandoned their defensive responsibilities.
Some Questionable Changes
Diego Martinez has been a breath of fresh air for Olympiacos. He is a players’ manager who constantly preaches that this team is a family. His tactics so far have been on-point but his adjustments didn’t pan out for him this past Sunday.
Daniel Podence hasn’t competed in a full, 90-minute contest since this past May, so an early change in the second half was inevitable. Unfortunately, the substitutions of Masouras in the 55th minute and Fortounis in the 70th minute all but ended Olympiacos’s offensive third presence. Sure, Gustavo Scarpa is someone who I truly believe will be an asset this season, but he is not that player at the moment. Pep Biel continues to display inconsistency and was non-existent today.
The additions of Iborra in the midfield and Francisco Ortega reassured us that the Spaniard manager seemed to be satisfied with the tie. The final 1-1 scoreline is probably fair when you take into account the entire image of the game.
It is still mid-September and we mustn’t forget that this is still a brand new squad. Antonio Cordon, along with Martinez and team owner Evangelos Marinakis deserve a lot of credit for the complete 180 they have made with this roster. That being said, patience is a virtue and this team will only get better as the season goes on.
Marinakis must also feel vindicated after he warned everyone publicly that Dias will favor AEK. Forget that the VAR saved the referee when he called an erroneous penalty and didn’t see the clear handball before the second AEK goal, the clearest sign that Dias had an agenda was showcased in the first half. The official gave possession back to the home side after Quini advanced on a throw-in but in the second half, he warned AEK left back, Milad Mohammadi, two times for the same offense before letting him execute the throw-in on his third attempt.
With Freiburg coming in less than 4 days, the Piraeus-based team doesn’t have time to sulk about today’s tie. A 1-1 draw in OPAP Arena (where Olympiacos have yet to lose in three Superleague games – 1 win and 2 ties) is far from a poor result.
The 47-time Greek champions have shown they are a far better side than last year’s fiasco. Refereeing like the one from Artur Dias will continue all season; EPO boss Panagiotis Baltakos has shown that he will poke the Reds at every chance he gets. This team though has been built to overcome all that. Last year’s squad might have turtled after a poor start to a derby on the road. Aside from Sunday, Olympiacos also had a poor start in Belgium against Genk where they also fought back and got a positive result. The 2023-24 version of Olympiacos has shown us so far that they will not go down without a fight.
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