Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Piraeus in deep water
Perhaps one of the most iconic images in Liverpool's long and rich history is that of Steven Gerrard's late winner on December 8, 2004. It was the final goal of their group stage campaign for the 2004-05 UEFA Champions League season, one which booked their place in the knockout stages of a competition they would famously go on to win on that night in Istanbul.
Liverpool's opponents probably aren't remembered as widely as a number of other events at Anfield that evening: the way the Kop seemed to lurch forward as one to embrace its captain; the quality of Gerrard's strike; or the manner in which Andy Gray managed to yet again forget that if one is to be biased commentator, he or she should at least attempt to feign objectivity for a brief moment.
The forgotten element of that game was Olympiakos and, in a way, perhaps they were one of the most important factors in Liverpool's overall European triumph that season. It was of course they who performed one of the tragically typical implosions that have so often thwarted their attempts to secure continental glory; without wanting to discredit Liverpool's success that night, any team that allows Florent Sinama Pongolle to score against them has serious deficiencies.
While that 3-1 defeat is one of the most heartbreaking in the club's history, it probably doesn't compare to the 7-0 drubbing they suffered at the hands of Juventus in 2003. At the time, the Turin club were able to break a record for the highest winning margin in the history of the competition, with Panathinaikos fans still quick to remind their neighbours of various unflattering nicknames handed down to them in the wake of that defeat (I urge you to use your imagination here).
For all of their 39 league titles and 25 Greek Cup victories, Olympiakos' European history is overshadowed by that of fierce Athenian rivals, something that has always been difficult pill for fans in Piraeus to swallow. That is not to say however that they haven't had their moments on the continent and a run to the quarter-finals of the 1998-99 Champions League is a testament to their potential. That outstanding side was coached by Dusan Bajevic, who had under his command players of the ilk of Stelios Giannakopoulos, Grigoris Georgatos, Sinisa Gogic and Pedrag Djodjevic.
Juventus were their opponents in the last eight and an Andreas Niniadis penalty in injury-time had given the Greeks a crucial away goal to take back to Athens, despite the 2-1 first-leg defeat. Upon their return to a packed Olympic Stadium, Olympiakos took the lead through Gogic and seemed set for the semi-finals of the competition. Disaster struck with just five minutes remaining, however, as goalkeeper Dimitris Eleftheropoulos flapped at a cross and allowed Antonio Conte to volley into an empty net.
Similar tales of woe can be told of recent European failings but the reality is that Olympiakos are currently the only Greek club in any position to launch a Champions League campaign. (That, however, isn't saying much given the manner in which teams have been hit by the country's economic crisis). Indeed the economy evades no-one and though they are still in a relatively healthy state, the reigning champions are certainly not immune; a recent newspaper report in Greece showed that the wage bill of top-flight clubs has been reduced by an average of 44.7% in the past year.
Olympiakos are still by far the Greek Super League's biggest spenders, allocating €18 million to player contracts, which is €10 million more than Panathinaikos. Yet their outlay has been curtailed by 21.7% and their transfer activity this summer was not of the same energy or fanfare of previous seasons. The departure of talisman Kevin Mirallas and the experienced Olof Mellberg has left the current squad looking a little threadbare for the upcoming Champions League campaign, with reinforcements hardly of the same quality.
Former Braga manager Leonardo Jardim took over the reigns this summer and while he is a talented young coach, his team have hardly been convincing in their opening three league matches. Yet despite below-par performances they have managed to win all three - two away from home - and having already established a seven-point lead over challengers Panathinaikos, seem set to comfortably defend their title this season.
Therein however, lies the biggest reason for Olympiakos' lack of continental success over the past few years: playing against substantially inferior opposition on a weekly basis is hardly the ideal preparation for a clash with the giants of English, Spanish and Italian football. While the best teams in those countries are fine-tuned by consistently facing opponents of high quality, in high-pressure situations, Olympiakos do battle with the likes of Veria, Levadiakos and PAS Giannina.
The situation has become worse with the decline of teams who would traditionally provide a stern test and even a title challenge. During that famous 1998-99 Champions League campaign, domestically Olympiakos would lock horns with AEK Athens and Panathinaikos, local rivals who are now a shadow of the clubs they were back then.
A domestic competition in a dishevelled state both on and off the pitch is hardly the right environment for a team with lofty European ambitions. This is particularly the case now that Olympiakos are unable to attract players of the calibre of even two or three seasons ago, when the Super League was a far more attractive football and financial package to foreign stars.
It has left Portuguese manager Jardim in a difficult situation ahead of his first continental expedition with the club. Olympiakos will welcome Bundesliga side Schalke to the Karaiskakis Stadium on Tuesday and within the German travelling party will be centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos. The Greece international has developed into one of Europe's brightest young talents over the past two years, having had the good sense to leave his homeland to continue his development.
His return to Piraeus will be an emotional one given he began his senior career with Olympiakos, though the current state of the Greek domestic game probably means he hardly misses playing in half-empty, run-down stadiums and on uneven pitches. Indeed, how can it be expected that a club be able to mould a player of his calibre in the near future given the lack of infrastructure and quality in the Super League at the moment?
However, that won't be the current concern for Jardim, who will have been instructed by the owners, media and fans of the club to solely focus on the competition that has become their obsession. Success in the league means virtually nothing these days and though that may seem a cynical view, it is the reality.
Having been drawn in a group that includes Arsenal, Schalke and Montpellier, Olympiakos aren't exactly facing demigods of the European game. Yet their gradual decline - which has mirrored that of Greek domestic football generally - means that they are arguably the favourites to finish bottom of their group. Perhaps the inevitability of their failure is a little easier to take than the heartbreak of those infamous nights against Juventus and Liverpool, where hope and promise were suddenly supplanted by despair - and that truly is tragic and cynical.