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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 24 December 2016
28 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 24 DECEMBER 2016 SPORT Olympiakos back on top, so what’s new? The perennial Greek champions have moved swiftly past the minefield that was the start of the season and are back in their groove. DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM ISSN 1321-1676 9 771321 167062 PHOTO: INTIME.GR GERARD PAPASIMAKOPOULOS This was apparently the season that the Super League was going to kick it in to high gear. It may sound like a bad joke right now, nearly halfway into it, but many people (including this humble hack) were extremely optimistic. Olympiakos seemed shaky; Panathinaikos looked like they had found a lost sense of footballing rhythm; PAOK were feeling great about going forward with their inexperienced but promising coach Vladan Ivic; and AEK Athens were making some high profile signings – despite some truly dreadful dealings in the managerial market – and hoping to push on after their cup-winning run last season. For a month or two, this sense of optimism seemed reasonable. Olympiakos were swiftly out of the Champions League, had changed two managers and looked uncharacteristically shaky and the rest of the title contenders smelt blood. Yes, the race was on. Finally a race for the title was on. Well, now its Christmas and we’re done with all that. Olympiakos are back to the top of the league, hold a significant lead over their rivals and must be having a chuckle watching AEK Athens, PAOK and PAO fall over themselves again. And again. And again. Panionios, Xanthi and PAS Giannina have also squeezed into the top six, proving to be the surprise packages of the season so far, but realistically, let’s face it, it’s over. Olympiakos rarely let a league lead slip and right now that lead reads as follows: After 12 games, Olympiakos are nine points clear of Xanthi and Panathinaikos (in second and third place respectively, with Panathinaikos third on goal difference), ten points clear of fourth placed Panionios, eleven points clear of AEK Athens in fifth place and 13 points clear of PAS Giannina in sixth. As we said above, it’s over. And of course, it’s not just the size of the lead. More than anything, on current form, it seems more likely that the chasing pack will drop further points than the current champions and league leaders. Olympiakos handed their rivals a head start, but none of them took advantage of it. Playtime it seems, is well and truly over. While there is a lot than can be said about how AEK, PAO and PAOK have managed to fall flat on their faces so spectacularly this season, to focus on them as a way of explaining how the season has played out so far would be extremely unfair to Olympiakos. The perennial champions have slowly but steadily recovered some of their top-boy swagger and current coach Paulo Bento deserves credit for that. The ex-Sporting Lisbon man still finds little love from the Olympiakos fans, but has worked admirably with what is pos- sibly the most limited pool of players the boys from Piraeus have had in a while. Constantly stern-faced and a man of few words, Bento is not cut out to be a terrace favourite. He doesn’t have time for inspiring team talks, nor is he interested in pleasing anyone ; and that includes Kostas Fortounis, the team’s star player, who has found life to be quite difficult under his new manager. Fortounis, who is no doubt a matchwinner on his day, is nevertheless a game-picker, a player that floats through matches he’s not really up for, clearly a man that has taken one too many bites from his very own hype cake. Bento, has no time for such diva-centric performances and is not afraid to express it. Whether or not making more enemies than friends will benefit him in the long run remains to be seen, but for now the current Olympiakos manager is sitting pretty at the top of the league and with January re- inforcements not too far from his reach, he seems ready to fortify himself even further on the Olympiakos bench. On the pitch, things have been slightly underwhelming but functional. Óscar Cardozo finally seems to be pushing hard for that starting place in the Olympiakos line-up, a spot that looked to belong solely to Brown Ideye at the start of the season. In Diogo Figueiras they seem to have found a galloper of an attacking fullback in the Omar Elabdellaoui mold, who adds much needed zip to what is arguably a slow unit compared to Olympiakos teams from the recent past. Meanwhile, midfield lynchpin and all-round hard man Luka Milivojević is a player whose importance to the Olympiakos cause is constantly on the rise and credit must once again be awarded to Bento for being the first coach in a while to have come to Piraeus and show so much trust in the team’s youth. Youngsters like Panagiotis Retsos, Giorgos Manthatis and Thanasis Androutsos have all taken significant steps in establishing themselves in the first team fold and while they are surely still quite a way away from being the first names on the team sheet, they’re certainly enjoying the opportunities that Bento has handed them this season. With European football still on the cards through the Europa League and Olympiakos finding a rhythm precisely at the point when the team’s rivals are struggling to grasp theirs, it seems that the champions from Piraeus are slotting back into business-as-usual-mode. Their football so far this season might be unspectacular and as pragmatic as their coach, but if that means a domestic league and cup double at the end of the season, few will be complaining. At least in the Olympiakos camp.
17 December 2016
7 January 2017