The Two Faces of Olympiacos at the First Quarter of the Season
The Greek champions have reached the end of a series of games that started off back in the middle of July. During this time, they displayed two different profiles: one more efficient and another that troubles their fans. Who are the heroes who have emerged so far, who are the players who the team would expect more from, and what are the reasons behind these transformations?
July 22, 2021. Olympiacos begins their quest to reach the Champions League group stages against the champions of Azerbaijan. The team claims a narrow 1-0 win thanks to a goal by Mady Camara.
October 3, 2021. The 'erythrolefki' play host to Panathinaikos in the eternal rivalry of Greek football, with fan expectations incredibly high. In front of a crowd of over 20,000 people, Martins' players are unable to find their way into the back of the net, with the game ending in a draw (0-0), their sixth of the season.
If one were to take a simple look at the results so far, it seems reasonable for them to think that the team is in deep trouble, especially when compared to the great form that they ended the previous season in the Greek Super League. Yet, for those that follow the team closely, there's plenty of room for optimism.
This season, just like the 2019/20 period, Olympiacos was forced to start off very early. Manager Pedro Martins had no choice but to go with the players in the team up to that point and create a squad that could prove competitive enough to make it through the Champions League qualifying rounds. At the same time he was scouting throughout all of Europe to find the best possible solutions that would fill the gaps in the roster. The fact that they never impressed anyone with their performances and were barely able to scrape through the second round against Neftci comes as little surprise. If you add to that the many injuries that plagued the squad (Fortounis and Tiquinho) and the covid-19 cases, it seems almost logical that Olympiacos wouldn't be able to advance to the Champions League play-offs and were knocked out by Bulgarian side Ludogorets, a team that under normal circumstances they would have no trouble beating.
At the very least, they made it to the Europa League, which was the bare minimum. At the same time, the many acquisitions and changes to the squad couldn't get any game time due to the start of the new Greek Super League season being constantly delayed. They tried to make up for it by playing friendly matches but, as anyone who has played competitive football can tell you, it just isn't the same.
Once the ball finally started rolling inside the pitch, Olympiacos showed signs of struggling. Their goalless draw at home against Atromitos and the narrow win at Lamia were solid proof that what had occurred during the summer qualifying period was still going on. Martins didn't have a "magic wand" anymore, the new players that he chose for the team were underperforming and his decisions were starting to come under question. Not even the club's successful debut in the Europa League against Royal Antwerp (2-1) was enough to silence those doubts.
That is until the home game against Apollon in late September. As if someone had flipped a switch, the team showed signs of rebirth and dominated their opponents, winning the game 4-1. And though some may say "yes, but it was only Apollon", the fact that Olympiacos could barely find a goal against a team from Azerbaijan only a couple of months ago is more than solid proof of the team's progress.
As if that wasn't enough, Olympiacos continued their successful run in the following round, beating Asteras at Tripoli 0-2, with both goals coming in the first half. Then, in the biggest trial of the season so far, against Fenerbahce in Istanbul of all places, the team showed a side that not many have ever seen before in a European away game against a highly challenging opponent.
Taking possession, hitting hard on the counter, creating many opportunities and scoring three times, while not conceding any, the 'erythrolefki' walked away from the 'Polis' with an unprecedented 0-3 victory, putting them at the top of their group.
There are a few good reasons for this change in attitude and this shift to a more aggressive and imaginative style of football, for example the return of some injured players back into the squad, but the most important among them is one: progress. The group is becoming more tight with each passing day, the new players are beginning to grow accustomed to their surroundings, and in turn they can display their skills on the pitch with the help of their new teammates. The one player is learning the style of the other and these individuals, who are all bursting with quality, are starting to show signs of what they're capable of.
Granted, there are many from whom the team and Pedro Martins in particular has greater expectations of. Henry Onyekuru would be at the top of that list, with the Nigerian former AS Monaco winger rarely troubling opposition defences. Or Rony Lopes who hasn't even played a full game yet. Or even the new Polish fullback Michal Karbownik.
Yet on the other side of that scale, there's a number of players whose presence has created a significant impact within the team. There's no greater example than that of Aguibou Camara. The talented midfielder was given an opportunity by his new coach and he grabbed it by the hair! Having already scored one goal and provided two assists in the season, his place in the starting lineup is considered necessary at this point.
The Brazilian striker Tiquinho Soares is also a great example. Having spent his first few months ruled out by an injury, he didn't let this get him down; rather, he continued to work so that when it was time for him to come back, he could give his all for his new club. And the minute he was able to jump back into action, he showed Olympiacos recordsman Youssef El Arabi that this season things aren't going to be so easy for him. Four goals in four matches is no small feat yet Tiquinho makes it look simple.
And then there's Tomas Vaclik. The second best goalkeeper of the Euro 2020 behind Gianluigi Donnarumma has been the greatest replacement for the Premier League-bound Jose Sa. Showing impressive reflexes, great communication skills with the rest of his defense and signs of his experience in Spain, Olympiacos fans can feel safe that they have someone they can trust under the goalpost.
Of course there's a great number of old players who are still making an impact. Mady Camara, who's becoming more and more experienced and claimed a leadership role inside the team, Youssef El Arabi who's always there to score a goal or two when needed, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who's rock-solid in defense, alongside Senegalese duo Pape Abou Cisse and Ousseynou Ba. And of course the tireless Giorgos Masouras who continues to be an irreplaceable tool in the hands of his coach.
This Olympiacos team is worth close to 120 million euros (at least according to Transfermarkt). It is a squad full of potential, led by arguably the greatest coach the club has ever had. It seems almost inevitable that these players will produce results. Their 0-3 win in Turkey, but also the manner by which it was accomplished, is solid proof of this. However, in order to show their quality, both individually and as a group, these players - and more importantly the new arrivals - need something very important: time.
If they will be given this gift by the highly demanding fans or if patience will begin to run out, it remains to be seen. Yet these first few games show that we still have plenty more to see from Olympiacos in the 2021/22 season!