Connect in the back of the net

The third group stage matches of European competition took place this week, with Greece’s Olympiacos and AEK Athens both involved.

Olympiacos were hoping for a miracle away to Spanish giants Barcelona in the Champions League, while AEK travelled to Italy for a headline Europa League clash against AC Milan.

 

Olympiacos overturned in Barcelona

Let’s start with Olympiacos, a team which has endured a forgettable start to the season.

The reigning Greek champions lost their first two Champions League matches against Sporting Lisbon and Juventus respectively, and they languish in fifth position of the Greek Super League. Nevertheless, new head coach Takis Lemonis has offered hope of a revival.

His men claimed a thrilling 4:3 league win against Panionios last Saturday, scoring a last-ditch penalty to steal the spoils. Boosted by that dramatic victory, Olympiacos made the daunting trip to Spain for a crucial Champions League fixture against Barcelona.

It was a game which they had to take points from if they were to keep their tournament hopes alive, but the opponents couldn’t have been tougher.

Despite losing Neymar in the summer, Barcelona still own one of the best squads in the world. The Catalonian attack, spearheaded by the mercurial Lionel Messi, were surely licking their lips at facing a shaky Olympiacos defence.

Predictably, Takis Lemonis selected a very cautious line-up, opting to play without a striker. It seemed that Olympiacos were focused on damage limitation before the game had even begun.

To no-one’s surprise, Barcelona piled the pressure on the Greeks from the first whistle. The hosts opened the scoring on 19 minutes, and it’s one that young Dimitris Nikolaou will want to forget in a hurry.

Gerard Deulofeu lashed the ball in from the right flank, Lionel Messi was about to get on the end of it, but the young Greek defender stuck out a leg and inadvertently diverted it past the goalkeeper. Olympiacos’ heads dropped after that goal, allowing Barcelona to create a number of golden opportunities.

Out of the blue, the match turned on its head on the brink of half-time.

Gerard Pique turned the ball into the net with his arm, a move which earned him a second yellow card. Olympiacos had the chance to take the initiative in Spain, but Takis Lemonis thought differently. The visitors continued letting Barcelona control proceedings, not showing any ambition whatsoever in the process.

Their faint hopes were extinguished midway through the second half, as Lionel Messi curled in a delightful free-kick for his 100th goal in European competition. Lucas Digne made it 3:0 shortly afterwards, driving an arrowed attempt into the right corner.

To their credit, Olympiacos never threw the towel in.

Their perseverance was rewarded at the death. Dimitris Nikolaou atoned for his own-goal, powering home a thumping header from Kostas Fortounis’ corner. That’s all they could muster though, and Olympiacos find themselves rock bottom of Group D with zero points to show for their efforts.

Given the fact that they host Barcelona in Piraeus next time out, you can’t see that changing anytime soon.

 

AEK Athens grab a precious point at the San Siro

In complete contrast, AEK Athens have been flying in Europe.

Since their Champions League qualifying defeat to CSKA Moscow, the Athenian outfit haven’t lost a European game, winning two and drawing the others. They got off to a solid start in the Europa League’s Group D, beating Rijeka 2:1 in Croatia before nabbing a 2:2 draw against Austria Vienna.

However, their mettle was going to be tested against AC Milan. Yes, it’s not the great Milan of old, but they remain one of world football’s largest clubs.

Coming into this game, AC Milan were on a six-game winning streak in Europe. AEK weren’t given a prayer, but the Greek team started confidently at the legendary San Siro stadium.

Backed by fantastic travelling support, they had the best chances in the first half. Andre Simoes’ pass across goal somehow didn’t trickle over the line, and Petros Mantalos took too long with his shot when faced with only Gianluigi Donnarumma to beat.

As expected, AC Milan cranked up the level of performance in the second half.

The Italians slowly pushed AEK deeper towards their penalty area, preventing the Greeks from breaking away on the counterattack. Andre Silva should really have given Milan the lead, but he blazed a free header over the bar at point blank range.

AEK were rapidly losing energy, and Milan could feel it. Still, AEK had the huge Giannis Anestis between the sticks. The tall goalkeeper made some superb stops, notably denying Patrick Cutrone with a stunning save.

His heroics steered AEK to an historic point in Milan, keeping the Greeks in a solid second place of the group. They’ll be hoping for more when the teams meet in Athens in two weeks’ time.

 

Written by Shaun Nicolaides

Follow Shaun on Twitter @zenitfan93

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