Olympiakos: European Qualifiers Review
It certainly has been an emotional European campaign for Olympiakos and supporters of the Greek Champions. There was a mixture of highs and lows, surprising individual performances, and some players that we as fans had wished never stepped onto the pitch. Not to mention injuries, Covid, and the league being postponed. Perhaps even without all of the objectives reached, Thrylos have reached European competition to a degree and under difficult circumstances. The players, the manager, and the club should be congratulated for that. Here’s hoping we see the club at its full potential in this season's Europa League group stages.
So for this blog, I will be reviewing Erytholefki’s European qualifying campaign, looking at the failed Champions League campaign and the rally to reach the Europa League instead, as well as a personal rating overall in my summary.
The Champions League
Neftci Baku and Injury Difficulties
Due to winning the Greek Super League title last season, Thrylos originally qualified for the UEFA Champions League first qualifying round, but after certain circumstances involving other clubs, Olympiakos were automatically progressed to the second round instead. There they were drawn against Azerbaijani side Neftchi Baku. This was a tough period for the Greek Champions going into this tie as they had already lost chief creator Kostas Fortonuis and new striker Tiquniho Soares to injury.
Including those two players, Olympiakos had 11 absentees over the two legs, relating to injuries, Covid, or suspension, against Neftci which meant that Pedro Martins had a lot less to work with during that time. Even with these difficulties, Olympiakos were able to surpass their opposition firstly with a nervous 1-0 win in Piraeus, in which Thrylos were reduced to ten men, and then with a more confident victory of the same scoreline in Baku to qualify for the third round.
Ludogorets and Early Exit
After meandering past Neftci, Olympiakos would face a much sterner test to reach the playoffs in the form of Bulgarian Champions Ludogorets. Despite having a lot of the squad back from injury and Covid, it was clear from the first leg at the Karaiskakis Stadium that the team overall were not quite at the fitness they could have been against a Ludogorets side that had also started their domestic campaign, unlike Thrylos.
This is not to say that Olympiakos deserved to go through to the playoffs over Ludogorets. At times over both legs there was a lack of strong mentality from several key players, and our opponents showed they had much more drive and hunger to reach the playoffs over us.
After grabbing a late equaliser in Piraeus to finish the first leg 1-1, Thrylos travelled to Bulgaria to put the tie to bed. At first, the game script was going our way after Yann M’Vila put Olympiakos 0-1 ahead just before halftime. The moment the second half began was when the script was turned on its head.
Within ten minutes Thrylos found themselves 2-1 down after a silly own goal from Ruben Semedo and a penalty given away by Thanasis Androutsos. The ensuing spot kick was put away by Pieros Sotiriou, who came back to hurt Olympiakos once again. Thrylos found their way back into the tie after a penalty was awarded in our favour and El Arabi scored it to level proceedings.
The momentum we gained from the penalty was sadly lost after Ousseynou Ba was shown a red card and the Greek champions were reduced to ten men. After trying and failing to take control of the match during extra time, a penalty shootout awaited Thrylos. I knew from the moment of its confirmation that we were not going to get past Ludogorets, as negative as that sounds. They had been the hungrier team in this match and Olympiakos players looked tired with their heads dropping after extra time ended.
As I expected our side's penalty taking was poor with only Kenny Lala able to convert from the spot while Hassan and Valbuena both missed. It would be the Bulgarian champions that went through to the playoffs at our expense and it was a bitterly disappointing night for all fans of Erythrolefki.
Europa League Playoffs
Slovan Bratislava and UEL Qualification
After the disappointment of the Champions League campaign, Pedro Martins had to rally the players in the wake of entering the Europa League playoffs. The aim was to not only qualify for the group stages but an improved performance and properly kick-start a bit of momentum going into the new season. Slovan Bratislava was the opportunity that Thrylos needed to reassert themselves and finish their qualifying campaign strong. While the Slovakian side was not to be underestimated, Olympiakos were not only expected to beat them but convincingly so.
The first leg in Piraeus gave us Thrylos faithful just that. After a first half in which Olympiakos dominated, just before halftime the first goal came through Mady Camara, who took hold of the ball after it pinged around the box and slotted it nicely into the top left hand corner to break the deadlock. Our lead was doubled less than ten minutes after the break as Cisse, who had performed excellently in both defence and attack, squeezed the ball past the keeper to make it 2-0. With just over 20 minutes to go a corner crossed in by Valbuena found the head of Slovan captain Bozhikov who bundled the ball past his keeper to make it 3-0 to the Greek champions. We were able to play out the rest of the match with one foot firmly into the group stages.
The return leg in Slovakia almost felt like a formality with the tie firmly in Olympiakos favour, but it was still imperative that Thrylos put in a convincing performance to finish the qualifying campaign strongly and reach the Europa League group stages. Less than half an hour in, Vernon De Marco was given a straight red card for an awful challenge, reducing Slovan to ten men. Thrylos were able to take advantage of this minutes later as El Arabi put his side in front with a well taken header to put the tie seemingly to bed. Slovan rallied and took a shock equaliser just before half time after some poor marking from Kenny Lala.
Early on in the second half, substitute Bouchalakis played a nice ball to Henry Onyekuru, who skillfully curled the ball past the keeper to make it 2-1 in his full debut for the club. It did not take Slovan to retaliate who, despite being down to ten men and almost certainly out of the tie, still pressed their opponent. Eventually, the Slovakian side won a corner which was poorly defended by Olympiakos and Andre Green made it 2-2. After a couple of chances exchanged between the teams, both sides saw out the game with Olympiakos progressing to the Europa League group stages and Slovan having to settle for the Conference League.
Looking at it primarily from a statistical perspective, it was a fairly solid few matches for Olympiakos. Despite going out on penalties, throughout all of active play Thrylos are undefeated with 3 wins and 3 draws which means we are a tough side to beat generally. Scoring also has not been an issue on paper, with 10 goals in 6 matches which works out to just under two goals a game, a decent return.
When looking at the qualifying campaign with more context, however, it must be said that it is somewhat of a failure, with the elephant in the room being missing out on reaching the Champions League, a huge loss of revenue for the club. With the worth of the squad and the experience on the pitch in comparison to the likes of Ludogorets, who knocked Thrylos out, without any disrespect, Olympiakos should be getting past these kinds of teams not only on a regular basis but convincingly so.
Yes, there were extenuating circumstances with injuries, Covid, suspensions, and the added lack of competitive fixtures under the team’s belt with the league being postponed. That did not help. But in general the mentality of the team this season has not been as strong as we have seen previously.
There is a silver lining to this campaign. Despite the smaller revenue pot compared to Europe’s top competition, the Europa League does give a decent amount of prize money depending on wins, draws and progression to the next round of the competition. There is also the possibility for Olympiakos to compete against sides of a similar level which will naturally be more entertaining for the supporters and also give the club an opportunity to perhaps go on a run into the latter stages of the competition.
There is certainly some work needed from Pedro Martins and the squad in preparation for the group stages, especially with a group containing Frankfurt, Fenerbahce, and Antwerp. But if Olympiakos are ready for the challenges ahead, both physically and mentally, there is every chance that Erythrolefki can potentially top the group. To finish with a rating for the qualifying campaign, I think I would give it a 6/10. Obviously, points were lost for not reaching the UCL but Europa League is still somewhat of a success.