The Big Match: Panathinaikos-Olympiakos

With all the big matches that were played this past weekend, perhaps it is a surprise to some of you that we would select this one Panathinaikos against Olympiakos, the biggest of all Greek derbies as the one we would cover.

At One Game, One World however we want to cover topics and matches for that matter that don’t get splattered across the daily headlines of every website. So in the future we will certainly cover Manchester United-Liverpool or the A-League Final or the Superclassico in Argentina, but for this weekend we decided to focus on Greek football’s most passionate match.

Let’s do a quick set-up of this match for those of you that were not up to date on the current happenings of the Greek Super League. Ahead of this match featuring Panathinaikos and Olympiakos at the Olympic Stadium in Athens, Panathinaikos were seven points clear at the top of the table and the odds-on favorites to win the domestic championship and helped end an Olympiakos dominance in Greece that has seen ‘Thrlyos’ win the last five titles and an incredible 12 out of the last 13.

Even a loss would have kept the Greens of Panathinaikos in the driver’s seat for the title, but for anyone who saw this one it was clear from the start that Nikos Nioplias’ side were gunning for the victory. Panathinaikos settled quickly in the inferno of the Olympic Stadium (their fans and their fans only filled the stadium, which has been commonplace for many Greek derbies in the last few years as the away team’s fans are not allowed in order to lessen the possibility of crowd trouble). Poor form, a determined Panathinakos unit, and the atmosphere inside the ground ensured Olympiakos suffered through 45 minutes of being on the backfoot during the first half.

Panathinaikos looked sharper and fresher and were easily the side looking most likely to score. The fact that it didn’t happen had more to do with the crossbar and a lack of luck than any sort or resolute defending. The likes of Djibril Cisse, Dimitris Salpingidis, and Sebastian Leto were wreaking all sorts of havoc on the Olympiakos backline and the likes of Vasilis Torosidis, Raul Bravo, and Avraam Papadopoulos were finding it hard to cope, only Olaf Mellberg, oustanding in his first season with Olympiakos, looked to be steadying what appeared to be a sinking ship.

It took 15th minutes for the first opportunity for Panathinaikos to come, however it was so very nearly a goal as defender Loukas Vyntra just missed a header at the far post from a Leto foul. Olympiakos fans have become accustomed to seeing veteran goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis have trouble with aeriel assaults after numerous errors in Greece and in Europe from crosses or free-kicks. The Greek George Clooney is starting to look every bit his 37 years and though he is still a safe pair of hands on most days, it will be a surprise to many if he comes back next season and is the team’s number one.

On two occasions Olympiakos could have been reduced to 10 men in the first half. The first instance came 18 minutes in when on-loan winger Jesus Datolo kicked out at the impressive Yiourkas Seitaridis and then in the 26th minute when Avraam Papadopoulos brought down the busy Salpingidis just outside the box with the Panathinaikos players furious with the yellow shown as they deemed him to be the last defender.

From the resulting free-kick, Cisse sent a blistering shot just over. This was the start of a nearly 10-minute spell of unbelievable pressure on the Olympiakos goal highlighted by Salpingidis hitting the crossbar on the half hour mark and Olympiakos midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis clearing off the goal line from Salpingidis again just minutes later.

Besides an early shot by Torosidis that was batted over by Panathinaikos goalkeeper Alexandros Tzorvas, Olympiakos’ only other offensive move of note was a shot well wide by Datolo on 38 minutes after good work on the edge of the box by striker Kostas Mitroglou. Halftime couldn’t have come quicker for Olympiakos. The team were struggling mightily and the likes of Lomana LuaLua and Enzo Maresca were anonymous, players whom they usually rely on for some sort of offense. 

The second half begin in much the same fashion as the first ended, Panathinaikos were on top and looked destined to score. Olympiakos were providing no threat of their own and even their star defender Mellberg had to go off at halftime after suffering a knock. Then came a move that played a role in changing the course of the match.

Olympiakos coach Bozidar Bandovic brought on English striker Matt Derbyshire for Greek U-21 international Giannis Papadopoulos and the Piraeus-based side switched to a 4-4-2 formation. It was a risky move in the sense that Olympiakos would be outnumbered in the middle of the pitch, but for many fans it was a welcome move as Olympiakos were almost pathetic in their inability to keep possession and launch any sort of offensive move.

Panathinaikos kept the chances coming with Gilberto Silva having a curling shot saved on the hour mark and Leto a minute later flashing his shot wide when he probably should have crossed. Football is a funny old game isn’t it though, and that cliche along with the one that states if you miss your chances you might get burned were proven correct on 67 minutes. LuaLua found space for himself on the right and sent in a superb cross that was met by a Derbyshire header. His effort was batted away by Tzorvas, however Derbyshire kept his composure to stroke the ball into an empty net. Olympiakos 1-0.

It was amazing turn of events and surely the shock of all shocks to a Panathinaikos team who had bossed the match from the start. Nioplias finally started to bring players on a few minutes later, though it was puzzling why he didn’t freshen his team up earlier than that. Panathinaikos were creating chances here and there, but the ideas were starting to run out.

The introduction of Sotiris Ninis came much too late, based on the youngster’s contributions in the last 20 minutes. Ninis looked confident and determined to drive his team forward and he did just that. Almost immediately after coming on, he picked out Cisse in the box and the French international hit the post.

Meanwhile, Panathinaikos were finally starting to show cracks in their defense. The club have been missing a dominant player in the center of defense for a few years now and it is a real question among the club’s supporters as to why no quality center back has been purchased. Melberg was on the list last summer until former coach Henk Ten Cate decided he wasn’t good enough for his team. How wrong he was.

Olympiakos were no finding all sorts of room as the match opened up greatly thanks to Panathinaikos pushing up so many players. Just as it was unbelievable that Panathinaikos didn’t score two or three times in the first half, it was inconceivable that Olympiakos didn’t add to their lead towards the end as Spanish substsitute Oscar missed a glorious opportunity eight minutes from time and Mitroglou sent a fantastic effort from well outside the box against the bar a minute later.

Panathinaikos pushed forward for the remainder of the match, but despite a couple close calls from set pieces, Olympiakos were able to secure what in the end was an unlikely victory. Nioplias’ side remain title favorites with a four-point lead at the top with three matches left. But besides bragging rights, Olympiakos will also hope that this defeat will put some doubt into the minds of their bitter rivals going into the final three crucial matches. All in all, it was an exhilirating derby, much different than the scrappy affairs usually contested by these two. It was a hard-fought and physical match, but there was plenty of attacking play especially in that second half that would have pleased the neutral.

The Good: Panathinaikos’ first half display deserved so much more as they dominated. Bandovic must be given credit for getting his substitutes and tactics right. The match itself was so exciting in the last 20 minutes as it went back and forth and for better finishing would have produced more goals.

The Bad: Olympiakos showed why they have been struggling this season with perhaps their worst half of football in a decade in the first 45. Nioplias waited too long perhaps to make changes. Both sides were guilty of poor finishing.

Panathinaikos Verdict: Their pride would have been wounded with this result, but if Nioplias can refocus the side then they will claim their first league title since 2004. If they are to win and then be in the Champions’ League next season they will surely need to shore up their backline. Nioplias has done a wonderful job in creating a winning side after Ten Cate left the team low on confidence and belief, however the former Panathinaikos star is still a young manager who is learning on the job.

Olympiakos Verdict: This is arguably the club’s worst team in years and their play for large stretches of this match was disjointed at best. That said, there is quality in the side though the team have greatly missed the influence this season of club legend Predrag Djordjevic (retired) and current star Luciano Galletti (out injured for most of the season). Without these two Olympiakos have struggled to create and have lost many points at home and to smaller sides that looks set to cost them the title. Maresca hasn’t helped much also and has endured a fairly poor first season in Greece. The bright spots for next season come in the form of Mitroglou and Derbyshire. This could be a decent attacking duo if they are allowed to play together and grow.

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