Olympiakos were relieved to progress into the last 16 of the Champions League after beating a brave Arsenal side in Athens. It was a game of two halves as the Gunners dominated the first half and carved out many chances looking active. Theo Walcott gave Raul Bravo problems in the opening 20 minutes racing down the right flank and often cutting into the box. The young England international looked most likely to score as he powered a shot straight at Antonis Nikopolidis, which the goalkeeper turned over. Olympiakos relied on the counter attack through Arsenal pressure and while Lukasz Fabianski had some aerial balls to deal with, he was rarely tested in the opening stages.
The Greeks looked defensive and complacent (ironic considering the coach Zico was lauded as one of the greatest attacking players of his generation) until the tail end of the first half when news came through of the other group match in Belgium as Alkmaar took the lead against Standard Liege.
Olympiakos’ best movements came from threaded passes from Enzo Maresca and decent breaks off Arsenal set-pieces notably from Luciano Galletti. Arsenal’s record-breaking young starting XI impressed in the first 45 minutes, dribbling well and perhaps more directly than the intricate passers of the regular first team.The second half started in stark contrast as the Gunners’ back was cut open with Kyle Bartley leaving an opening for Leonardo to slip in and slot home the opener. Arsenal stayed resilient with some fabulous passing from Aaron Ramsey who spread the play beautifully. Carlos Vela had a chance to equalise when Aaron Ramsey squared the ball on the edge of the 18-yard box but Vela shot straight at the keeper. The Mexican had another chance when Fran Merida cleverly threaded the ball through the Olympiakos back line only for Vela to fail to finish.
Zico: “It was a good performance. We tried to win the game from the beginning and we played well. Our fans should enjoy this victory and that we qualified, because they deserve it from the strength they gave us during the game.”
Arsene Wenger: “I am very pleased with the performance. They have shown mentally they can cope with the pressure of such a high-level game. They can be proud of their performance. I believe they will be convinced they will have the chance to play at that level in the future.”
Olympiakos’ attitude was reflected in the jeers echoing from the stands of the Karaiskakis. The fans were not happy with the first half performance and were not shy of expressing it. This was not the approach one would expect from the reigning Greek champions, the laid back attitude transformed only when AZ Alkmaar scored in Belgium. Perhaps the Greeks underestimated the Arsenal youngsters and were pegged back a lot of the first half breaking when possible.
Raul Bravo was tested often in the early stages but grew well into the game keeping Merida and other marauders at bay. Former Aston Villa defender Olof Mellberg gave a stoic performance and was one of the reasons Olympiakos didn’t concede while Galletti provided the only real threat volleying only to hit the side netting and for groans to ebb once more. Greek goalkeeping veteran Antonios Nikopolidis, who turns 39 next month was resilient against the pressure from the Gunners, coming one on one with Vela and Walcott on a number of occasions and remained composed enough to parry the goal bound efforts. Nevertheless, Olympiakos’ performance was far from Olympian.
Arsenal must have felt somewhat unjustified with the scoreline as they left with nothing to show for after a valiant effort. The North Londoners fielded the youngest ever side in Champions League history (beating Ajax’s record set six years ago) with many players making their European debut inside the throbbing Karaiskakis Stadium. Arsene Wenger employed his 4-3-3 formation giving way for the full-backs to overlap on the flanks to assist in the attacks but unlike the regular first team, Tom Cruise and Kerrea Gilbert did not push forward as much as Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy remaining deep in the defence. Arsenal’s young guns seemed confident on the offensive but inexperience showed at the back.
The usual defensive worries for Arsenal continued when the Brazilian Leonardo broke through to score two minutes after the second half commenced. Debutant Tom Cruise – another from the Arsenal production line caught the headlines for his namesake but the true shining future star was Welsh international Aaron Ramsey. Arsenal’s creative hub strode with his Fabregas style passing and Bergkamp vision always providing passes for Walcott and others to latch onto.
Wenger lined his spine with some experience, Fabianski, Mikel Silvestre, Walcott and Alexandre Song all added some familiarity of European clashes. Song, who returned from suspension, broke up play in Vieira-esque fashion; fans can be encouraged with him signing a new contract earlier this week.
The only area where Arsenal were unsuccessful was the final third. Carlos Vela roamed on his own up front with Walcott, Merida and Jack Wilshere just off him. In the final minutes, Ramsey fittingly gave Arsenal their best chance from less than five yards out only to see his shot cleared off the line by Leonardo. Wenger stated that he was proud of his players and while he may have come away from Greece with no points – the future may be bright, the future may be Arsenal.
Olympiakos 1 – 0 Arsenal – Leonardo 47
Olympiakos (4-4-1-1): Nikopolidis – Galitsios, Papadopolous, Mellberg, Raul Bravo – Galletti, Dudu (Domi 86) – Maresca, Leonardo – Gonazalez (Pantos 90) – Mitroglou
Arsenal (4-3-3): Fabianski – Gilbert, Bartley, Silvestre, Cruise – Ramsey, Song, Merida -Walcott, Vela, Wilshere (Sunu 77)
Olympiakos – Arsenal
4 – Corners – 5
13 (4) – Shots (on target) – 9 (3)
14 – Fouls – 16
1 (0) – Yellow cards (Red) – 1 (0)
2 – Offside – 1