Olympiakos content to sit and make Arsenal play for last 16 spot

Marco Silva’s side are running away with the Greek Super League

Expect Arsenal to have the ball. Expect Olympiakos not to care. The joke in Greece goes that Olympiakos's desire to play on the break creates the impression the thought of passing straight to their opponents has crossed their mind and, if Arsenal are to secure the two-goal margin of victory they need to qualify for the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday, then Arsène Wenger will have to come up with a cunning tactical plan against a team who will be happy to sit back and soak up pressure.

Playing at home will not compel Olympiakos to attack or distract them from their primary task, which will be to contain and frustrate Wenger’s side. Nor will they allow themselves to be lured out of their defensive shape because of Arsenal’s sprawling injury list. They will not be quite as defensive as José Mourinho’s Internazionale were when they drove Barcelona mad in their 2010 semi-final. Yet even if Olympiakos decide to test a depleted Arsenal’s nerve in the opening exchanges at the intimidating Karaiskakis Stadium, it is unlikely they will be gung ho.

Marco Silva is a pragmatist who does not mind conceding possession and the Olympiakos manager decided at the start the best way for his unfancied team to get out of a group containing two of Europe's strongest sides was to adopt a cautious mentality. Olympiakos are seen as the Manchester United of Greece and their supporters expect attractive football whenever possible but that has often been their undoing in the Champions League. They have been guilty of approaching games against European giants as they would cannon fodder in the Greek Super League, often with dire consequences.

Olympiakos have learned from their mistakes, repeated disappointments forcing them to lower their sights and to play with a little more pragmatism in Europe. Their mindset has become more realistic. It was already changing before Silva arrived from Sporting Lisbon in the summer but the Portuguese has intensified Olympiakos’s organisation. They have even been counterattacking in the big domestic matches and the style brought them a 2-0 victory at PAOK Salonika and a 4-0 win over AEK Athens in October, scoring goals without being overly attacking.


After 12 games they are 10 points clear of AEK at the top of the league – with a game in hand – having won every match, even if they increased their number of goals conceded from five to eight on Saturday, when they let a comfortable 4-1 advantage over Panthrakikos with three minutes to play turn into a nervy 4-3 victory. Their record is testament to their superior resources: Olympiakos have won the title in 17 of the past 19 seasons, although their record leaves a sour taste in the mouth of their opponents.

Olympiakos have been embroiled in Greek football's match-fixing crisis, with their president, Evangelos Marinakis, one of the accused in the scandal. However Marinakis denies all claims he conspired to fix domestic matches and Olympiakos were cleared to play in the Champions League after allegations made by their rivals Panathinaikos were rejected by the court of arbitration for sport. Uefa said neither the Greek football federation "nor the criminal courts in Athens have rendered any final decision against Mr Marinakis or the club".

Olympiakos’s reprieve has left Silva to implement a playing system that has served them well in the Champions League. Like Bayern Munich Olympiakos’s near-invincibility at home means their seasons are defined by their performances in the Champions League.

When Olympiakos hosted Bayern in their opening group match in September, the 38-year-old Silva knew there was no chance of victory. It was an opportunity for his players to test their defensive qualities against the elite and, although Bayern won 3-0, he was satisfied with the performance.

Silva's optimism was justified when Olympiakos visited Arsenal in their second match and won 3-2 thanks to a measured performance. Arsenal contributed to their own downfall with their lethargy out of possession in a match when Wenger's decision to play David Ospina instead of Petr Cech backfired.

Olympiakos deserved credit for the way they slowly asserted themselves, taking the sting out of the occasion and waiting for openings to appear before pouncing. They scored three goals without playing Arsenal off the park. It has been a recurring theme this season.

If there is a problem with their reactive style, it appears when Olympiakos are expected to take the game to their opponents. Arsenal would not be in such a quandary if Olympiakos had not grabbed late winners in both of their matches against Dinamo Zagreb.

They have scored 35 goals in the league and what they lack in prolific individuals they make up for in their teamwork, understanding and work rate. Kostas Fortounis, the former Asteras Tripolis prodigy, has been revitalised after struggling to impress at Kaiserslautern and the 23-year-old has scored 10 league goals this season, four of them penalties. Felipe Pardo's runs offer thrust on the flanks and, although Alfred Finnbogason, who scored the winner against Arsenal in September, was expected to start up front, Brown Ideye's unselfish link-up play means he is perfectly suited to playing in a lone role.

Esteban Cambiasso has not played as much as he would have liked because of a couple of minor injuries but, instead of complaining about sitting on the bench, the midfielder has used his vast experience to guide Olympiakos's young players. Having played for Mourinho's Inter, Cambiasso knows what it is like to turn down possession. Arsenal will have the ball. Will they have the ingenuity?

(Guardian service)