Wayne Rooney will be hoping to find the net against Olympiakos after a great goal Saturday
Some may consider Manchester United’s current season a Greek tragedy, with David Moyes’ men way off the pace in the Premier League. The Champions League is generally a nice distraction, especially considering the opposition facing domestic rivals in the competition. Wayne Rooney scored his first goal since the 3-2 victory over Hull City and will be looking to link up again with Robin van Persie as United aim to do one better than last season and get into the quarter finals.
United have met Olympiakos four times in their history, with the most recent coming back in October 2002, when Juan Sebastian Veron scored a superb goal in a 3-2 victory. United have won all four matches scoring twelve goals to the Greek’s two. The away side are missing Nani (hamstring), Phil Jones (hip) and Jonny Evans (calf) who have remained in Manchester due to injury, whilst Juan Mata is cup tied.
We caught up our resident blogger Sleepy Nik who, although a Red through and through, is half Greek and knows a fair bit about United’s opponents on Tuesday night! We spoke about the home side’s amazing domestic form, sweet loving Rivaldo and how the Greek Champions will line up. You can follow Nik on Twitter @Sleepy_Nik
1) How would you describe Olympiakos’ season thus far?
Scintillating. Having won 26 from 28 games, scoring 78 and only conceding 9, with a 100% record at the Karaiskakis of course, Olympiakos are literally running away with the league. Credit has to go to Michel (former Madrid player), who hardly came to Greece with a sterling reputation (not known for his tactical nous/arguing with players daily on the training ground etc) – and who had the undesirable task of following the hugely successful, and well liked, Valverde, who is now at Athletic Club Bilbao.
You can obviously question the quality of the league, and of course the fact their two greatest rivals are still in turmoil, both financially and philosophically. AEK Athens were relegated to the Greek third tier last season due to bankruptcy, and Panathinaikos have yet to recover from the ‘eternal enemy’ derby of 2012 (fan riots and stadium fires ensued), after which the 12-man board all resigned with immediate effect.
It was following that game that the Greek FA cemented its prohibition of any away fan travel across the Superleague, a ban still in place today (in theory anyway!), sadly. Greek shipping magnate, Marinakis, has also ploughed his millions into the club in the last few years to capitalise on his opponents’ frailty, but Olympiakos have still had to gel new players with a new system, and for that, Michel and the team need to take great credit.
2) What was the initial reaction following the draw?
Excitement. United have the biggest following of any of the English clubs in Greece, and probably second only to Real Madrid in terms of following non-Greek clubs. Olympiakos traditionally have had an affiliation with Liverpool too (you might remember Olympiakos being asked to play at Anfield for Gerrard’s testimonial recently for instance), both clubs being based near to a port (Piraeus), so the fixture has that extra edge to it in that sense.
There is also expectation, it has to be said; after a torrid time in Europe in the last couple of seasons, and a particularly horrible record against English clubs, the Greek side see the travails of Moyes as an ‘opportunity’. They remember the humiliation at the hands of Veron and Keane et al last time around too (2-3 at home, 0-4 at Old Trafford), and believe it or not, there will be a political element to it too, given the current financial climate and the worst economic crisis ever to be seen in Greece. Greek fans really do live through their football clubs.
3) How will Olympiakos line up on Tuesday and will the score be?
Like United, Olympiakos have traditionally played with width, using an attacking 4-4-2. The late 90’s/ early ‘noughties’ was a booming time for wingers such as Djordjevic, Gianakopoulos and Georgatos (ex Inter), at roughly the same time United were dominating the domestic landscape with the likes of Kanchelskis, Beckham and Giggs. But latterly, especially in Europe (and thanks to Valverde) there is more of a modern 4-2-3-1 approach in development. There is still a focus on width, but with a more fluid approach in the attacking third.
The loss of Mitroglou will be felt of course, and particularly because of today’s news that Saviola ‘el Conejo’, is likely to be out through injury. The Greeks are likely to turn to Campbell (loaned from Arsenal), with Dominguez (ex Rayo) probably beating Valdes to the supporting role. Machado, Ndinga and Maniatis keep it very tight in the centre, providing lots of energy and quick passing, whilst Michel may be tempted to start with new signing, Perez, a Paraguayan trickster who has just been secured from Villareal.
Perez has a touch of Nani in him, lots of flair and very direct – he should certainly feature. Fan favourite, Fuster might feature out wide, but will have competition from Nigerian U-21, Olaitan, particularly because the former has just come back from injury. At the back Avram Papadopoulos will be joined by either exciting young prospect, Manolas, or recently recruited Marcano, a Spanish U-21 starlet.
The game will be tight, and don’t underestimate the hostile atmosphere. I’m going for a score-draw, but wouldn’t be surprised with a tight victory to Olympiakos given United’s recent form.
4) You mention the atmosphere in the Karaiskaki, what exactly makes it so special?
Well I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say it is up there as one of the very best atmospheres in world football. As we said above, the Greeks really do live their lives around football – their religion if you like. To give you an idea of their passion, for a relatively small club (and little chance of European success) a huge 9000 fans travelled to Olympic stadium in Rome 2 years ago, which is a much bigger away following than any other from Greece.
The stadium is relatively compact and close to the pitch, and it will be full to the rafters, with the mandatory flares and music of course. Like United, Olympiakos, or ‘Thrylos’ (Legend) have the largest array of songs in their own league, and the fans won’t stop throughout the game. When they don’t have the ball, you can guarantee ‘whistling like they’re at a Roger Whittaker festival’; to coin a phrase Barry Glendenning used a few years back.
We have a special section in the stadium, ‘Gate 7’ where the Ultras sit and which is a part of the stadium dedicated to a tragic event which occurred in early February of 1981; it was game in which we beat AEK 6-0 – at the final whistle the fans went to celebrate outside of the stadium and the doors at this gate were not fully open; in fact they were virtually closed and there was pending tragedy – 20 Olympiakos fans and 1 from AEK died from the crush that ensued.
5) Who is the greatest player to put on an Olympiakos shirt?
Well, you would have to say Rivaldo in factual terms. He had a great couple of seasons for the red and whites (though fellow Brazilian, Giovanni had much more of an impact, as did Karembeu), but in terms of club legends, you can’t look any further than Pedrag Djodjevic, the Yugoslav (Greek nationalised) winger who plied his trade down the left side for 13 years at the club, with a consistency that matches, or even beats, that of Ryan Giggs. Djordjevic was a master of dead balls, a trickster, a work-horse and a clinical finisher – he also had the passion and presence of Eric.
6) Who do United need to look out for?
Saviola will be a threat in the return leg, his movement is still phenomenal (remember his Barca days?!) and he continually looks to drop into midfield for the ball. Campbell is a promising player, attacking wise; Dominguez is tidy, and Bong is a threat from fullback. Crowd favourite, Ibagaza (now 37), may be used from the bench to keep possession.
7) Will a Greek side ever win the European Cup? Are fans jealous that Panathinaikos actually got to a final in the early 70s?
Not any time soon! This is as good a chance for Olympiakos to reach a quarter-final as they will get, matching of course the heights of the ‘98/99 season where Bajevic’s team were a ‘gust of wind’ away from defeating Zidane’s Juventus to go through the semi’s. There has always been the goading from the Green side on the European front, what with the final against Ajax and all that; but like with United and Liverpool, this doesn’t really translate into ‘jealousy’ as it is the domestic front, and the complete domination of that (40 titles and counting), which is of the most importance!
8) Who is considered the best Greek footballer of all time and tell us a little known fact about the club?
Well, you could argue that it was Zagorakis who took us to the summit of European football back in 2004, a captain of great tactical understanding, passion and energy, who finished as player of the tournament in Portugal of course. But in terms of raw talent, and impact, well it can be none other than Vassilis Hatjipanagis, ‘the magician’ of Iraklis. Check him out here
In terms of little known facts – well, the club remains in the top 10 in world football in terms of paid up members. Olympiakos are really proud of the fact that they are strong in all sports: Basketball, Volleyball, Water Polo etc. – Olympiakos is the ‘club’ name. Enjoy the game!