Olympiacos Pay the Price
A sell-out crowd at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium wasn’t enough to push Olympiacos to victory yesterday in what could have been a historic night for Greek football. Three out of four wins for Greek teams in Europe with Olympiacos unfortunate to suffer defeat at the hands of Freiburg. The red and white were much the better side for most of the game but it was German efficiency that prevailed as Thrylos were made to rue missed opportunities and defensive lapses on the night.
One of the unwritten rules of football: if you don't take your chances, the other team will. Olympiacos wasted golden opportunities last night like the one El Kaabi missed during the opening minutes of the game and another from Masouras at 1-1. You can't afford to waste opportunities like that in Europe against quality sides. And Olympiacos paid the price dearly.
Father Christmas came early for Freiburg as two schoolboy errors from our centre backs gifted two goals to Freiburg. In the scouting report we did on Nicolas Freire, Gate 7 International co-host Ari Bouloubassis likened the Argentine centre back to Yassine Meriah and Ousseynou Ba – both players characterised by their lapses in concentration and susceptibility to error.
After the AEK game I expressed my lack of confidence in Freire in the long term for this season, to the ire of many Olympiacos fans. Do we really want to give a full season to a player we’ve brought in on loan at the expense of developing one of our own? I’d much rather Andreas Ndoj gain experience playing with us than play a player that’s going to end up back in Mexico at the end of this season – at least that’s the way I see it.
The doubts were confirmed yesterday. Under minimal pressure and with the score at 0-0, Freire played a suicidal back pass to the keeper with his weaker foot. Paschalakis was caught in two minds and Sallai slotted in the one on one. 1-0 to the Germans against the run of play.
Thrylos upped the pressure after the goal and managed to find an equaliser through the fox in the box, Ayoub El Kaabi. But then it was Retsos’ turn to make a silly foul inside the penalty box on Doan with the score at 1-1. Vincenzo Grifo subsequently converted from the spot to make it 2-1 right at the end of the first half. Another sucker punch to suffer before going into the dressing room at half time.
Besides the two centre backs, Rodinei’s performance on the right-hand side was one of the bright spots of last night’s performance. We all know what he can do going forward, with his darting runs and dribbling ability. He got his assist for El Kaabi’s first goal and looked solid defensively. On the other side, after a timid start in the first half, Ortega grew into the match and got further forward after the break. Positive signs that he is starting to come out of his shell. This was only his second start for the club since joining from Velez.
Hezze injury a turning point?
At 1-1, all the momentum was in Olympiacos's favour. Freiburg were on the ropes. The pace, aggression and energy of the Olympiacos press was forcing Freiburg to make mistakes at the back and hoof the ball long. Olympiacos were dominating possession and probing for that second goal. Then came the moment Santiago Hezze went down, taking an elbow to the face outside Freiburg’s penalty area. No foul called. No card for the opponent. No VAR call to check for intent and possible red card. Just Hezze, on the ground, bleeding and dizzy, with what has now been diagnosed as a broken nose. Coach Martinez protested vehemently on the bench, with reason. The ref had no problem giving him a yellow card. Cheers, UEFA (again).
The raucous atmosphere in the Karaiskakis Stadium was subdued and the momentum died down. Olympiacos lost their 21-year-old Argentinian starlet in midfield who was replaced by Vicente Iborra. The Spanish veteran contributed defensively with his presence, using his length and height to win balls in key areas of the park. He even had an opportunity to make the score level after halftime but his header went agonisingly over the bar.
There’s no doubting that the loss of Hezze brought the intensity that characterises Martinez’s team down a notch. Yes, it could have been a different game had he stayed on the pitch. It could have been a different game if Freiburg had gone down to 10 man early on. On the other hand, as hard as it is to swallow, we have ourselves to blame. We had opportunities to win the match irrespective of what happened with Hezze.
Many options behind the striker. Good thing or bad thing?
Thrylos managed to come back from behind again on the 74th minute. Fortounis, at the heart of the action again, playing an inviting cross into the box from deep and El Kaabi was there to stick his foot out and divert the ball into the back of the net and past the helpless Freiburg keeper. The Karaiskakis was on fire.
Olympiacos were in the driving seat once more but once again, the substitutions frustratingly didn’t make enough of a positive impact. It’s the second game in a row now that we look out of ideas without Fortounis on the pitch. There are a plethora of attacking options behind the striker: Fortounis, Masouras, Biel, Solbakken, Podence, Scarpa, Jovetic, Brnic. One of the major criticisms fans had last year was about the bloated roster. That’s eight players we have for three positions and not including Mario Vrousai who can also play there.
Yesterday, Martinez decided to play with the players that had the best chemistry. We were playing against a solid and tightly knit team that’s played together for years. Keeping in mind we are still a team that is under construction, the coach considered it an important factor to go out last night with the best “team” he could field. Masouras has been red hot this summer and Fortounis is irreplaceable in his current form. Biel continues to be a source of frustration. He’s got the talent but his level of consistency or lack there of leaves a lot to be desired. A player that we paid a reported €6m for last season, can we really afford to have him as a bench player?
As the season progresses, I believe Solbakken and Podence can become the two players to join Fortounis behind the striker. Gustavo Scarpa has until now shown very little for a player that was considered to be one of the best in Brazil. Rumours are also going around that Palmeiras want to lure him back to his home country with the player clearly having difficulties adapting to life in Europe. Ivan Brnic on the other hand has been very bright in both cameo performances in the league but unfortunately, he’s had to pay the price for having “too much quality” behind the striker - the player is ineligible for selection in Europe.
Reasons to remain positive
No one likes to lose. Especially Olympiacos fans. Especially in the first game of the group stage. Especially after the season we are bouncing back from. Everyone was hoping Thrylos could come back with a bang last night and make a statement victory against a side that walloped us 3-0 last season.
Our club is still under construction and as much as some fans crave the immediate success and results, Rome wasn’t built in a day. Additionaly, we have to look at this new era with Cordon and Martinez at the reigns as a two-year project. The summer transfer window was far from perfect but the train has been put firmly back on the tracks. We lost the battle last night. But we haven’t lost the war. Olympiacos’ goal has always been to continue playing in Europe after December and this is still an achievable and realistic objective.
Fans concern over Fortounis’ early substitutions and the impact on our game is warranted. Players like Podence and Solbakken, who we brought in as top of the line options, are lacking match fitness. But if they don’t get game time, they cant get match fit. Diego Martinez has the difficult job of having to integrate a lot of players that arrived towards the end of the transfer window. And he’s forced to do that in official games, not friendlies. He’s still “figuring it out” and that’s normal.
The good news now is that Olympiacos has three games in Greece before we travel to Serbia to face Topola for the second game of the Europa League Group Stage. The games against Kifissia, Aris and PAS Giannina can help to build-up positive momentum again and give more game time to key players in the squad that are lacking match fitness and need more time to gel with their teammates.
We’re gutted and frustrated to lose last night but there’s still a long road ahead.
Trust the process.
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