Morning folks and welcome to another match day, only this one is a definite match day with a lot more riding on it than most, as we face up against Olympiakos in Athens this evening.
It is not only a familiar ground – having played there as our ‘home’ game in the last round – but also a familiar opponent, as not only did we play them in this competition last year, but also having played them a number of times in recent years. In fact since 2009 we have faced off against Olympiakos 10 times, which will be 12 by the time these two games have been played. That’s 12 in 12 years. We average a game a year against Olympiakos for Christ’s sake!
And our record against them is patchy too. Five wins, five defeats and for a side who you’d expect to be viewed as ‘minnows’ in both Champions League and the Europa League, they’ve done us over enough times for us to be very wary about the threat they pose this evening.
Last season we went to their ground and got a tidy 1-0 away win, but then completely sh*t the bed with a pretty drab performance at home that actually left me quite stunned. Arteta was on a bit of a roll, we were looking good under him, then Olympiakos sucker-punched us with a late goal that we eventually went out on away goals to. We are once again the away side in the first leg and home side in the second leg, so tonight’s game is the one in which we gain the advantage and therefore need to make the most of it, because if we don’t get goals this evening it hands Olympiakos a big boost knowing that at worst they need a score draw to potentially go through.
That’s why I’m hoping Arteta has a plan to have a proper go at Olympiakos this evening and I hope he unleashes our full force in the final third. We need to play our best available attackers and that means Aubameyang up top, Odegaard behind, with Pepe left and Saka right. The positive news on Smith-Rowe was that he apparently had his first full training session yesterday and so could be in contention tonight, but personally I’d be inclined to have him as an option from the bench. Let’s not rush him back and treat his re-integration back in to the team in the same way he has been doing for Partey over the last few weeks, so we can have him ready and available for the remainder for the season and certainly for the second leg.
I also would prefer not to see any of this Willian nonsense from Arteta today. Alright, he’s been better in the last couple of games, but that was based on such a low bar that as long as he wasn’t running in to his own players, walking around on the left, or headbutting the post repeatedly, he was going to be better than what we’ve been subjected to earlier in the season. Pepe looked lively when he came on at Burnley, should have had a couple of goals, should DEFINITELY have had a penalty, but at least he was fashioning those chances. So I’d like to see him from the start today.
In midfield Partey had 80 minutes against Burnley and so he’s ready to go again and I think that makes a big difference in his chances. Xhaka may have been an idiot at the weekend for BUrnley’s goal, but him and Partey have looked like a decent midfield duo and so having those two start gives us a lot more technical security and control of the ball. Then behind them I hope he opts for Gabriel and Luiz in the centre, with Bellerin and Tierney as full backs. Bellerin may not be in form but he is better going forward than Cedric and my view is that we need to see more attacking impetus from our full backs this evening. Plus Bellerin always seems to link up better with Saka so if he starts I’d expect the Spaniard to put on a better display. This about the ‘away’ leg in Benfica and the runs Bellerin was getting in to, as well as how he should have got an assist had Auba not missed a sitter that you normally put your house on for him to score.
Olympiakos are a side used to winning and sit top of their league, as usual, and have only lost one game all season. They are romping their league and won 3-0 at the weekend, so will go in to the game with confidence. They have some familiar faces too. We all know Sokratis will line up in defence, but how about Yann M’Villa anyone? Remember him? He plays in the heart of their midfield and they’ll most likely line up in a similar 4-2-3-1 to us. The man who is their creative threat will be that midgety genius Valbuena and his vision on the right, feeding their target man Youssef El-Arabi, who was the guy who scored the winner against us last time out. We will need to better marshal him tonight.
I think we can though. Arteta said we are a better team than the one that faced them last season and whilst results don’t necessarily bare that out, defensively it certainly feels that way. We just have to try to avoid beating ourselves. Stupidity against Burnley, stupidity against Benfica, stupidity against Aston Villa – we have a pattern of that of late so what I’m hoping for is a brain-fartless night. I won’t hold my breathe though given what’s happened lately.
We have the better team. We are the favourites. They don’t have a usually very partisan set of fans behind them, so we should be looking to capitalize tonight. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen, but I just hope the players step up and perform like we know they can.
Catch you all tomorrow for a post-match review.