NEWS

Olympiakos misses chance to beat Chelsea

Olympiakos was left ruing the chances it missed against Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League on Tuesday night as the Greek champion’s best hope of making the quarterfinals seemed to disappear along with the smoke from tens of flares into the cold night air in Athens. In a poor game with little goalmouth action, the home team had the better chances and displayed greater skill than its expensively assembled and more illustrious opponent. Chelsea was so disappointing and lacking in creative play that head coach Avram Grant admitted after the game that it was his team’s worst European performance since he took over earlier in the season from Jose Mourinho at the helm of the Premiership side. «This is the game in which we played least well,» admitted Grant. «The result is OK. Of course, you always want to win but a draw is OK,» said the Israeli coach. «The performance was a little bit disappointing; we didn’t create much apart from two chances. But it is not easy to play here, they have good supporters and Olympiakos are a very organized team.» Olympiakos had two golden opportunities, one in each half, to score and take a lead to London for the return leg on March 5. Vassilis Torosidis, normally a defender but this time pushed into midfield by coach Takis Lemonis, came within a hair’s breadth of putting Olympiakos ahead in the first half. A corner from captain Predrag Djordjevic on the half-hour mark was headed on by Ieroklis Stoltidis and Torosidis almost connected with the flick on to send the noisy home crowd wild. Olympiakos fans were off their seats again in the 65th minute as Argentinean midfielder Luciano Galletti was left unmarked in the Chelsea penalty area but volleyed the ball over the bar. «We knew that it would be hard to create lots of chances against this team but we created a decent number of chances without managing to score. It is a result that allows to dream of more,» said Lemonis. «I was really pleased by the atmosphere and by the way the team followed our tactics. We were rarely threatened by Chelsea and we managed to have several organized attacks.» With both sides opting for 4-5-1 formations, there was a lack of firepower up front and the best chances came from counterattacks. The aging Darko Kovacevic struggled as a lone striker for Olympiakos but showed plenty of effort. There were times when the home side, with an average age of about 30, lacked the burst of pace needed to get past their opponents and really test their English opponents. Chelsea, however, lacked the fluidity in attack that Olympiakos showed glimpses of during the game. The English side rarely threatened Antonis Nikopolidis in the Olympiakos goal. A shot from Florent Malouda in the first half and a goalmouth scramble after a Chelsea free kick that was curled into the box were rare moments of activity for the Greek international goalkeeper. The way Olympiakos snubbed out Chelsea’s attacking options forced Grant to praise the performance of the home side and concede that Olympiakos got their tactics just right to keep up their record of not losing at home in the Champions League since October 2006. «Olympiakos on the tactical side played very well. They are a very organized team. It’s not by coincidence that they have not lost any games at home in the Champions League. They know also to play away but they play more or less the same way.» Grant also defended his decision to leave captain John Terry and fellow England international Frank Lampard on the bench for the game, even though Lampard was brought on as a substitute in the closing stages. «I am very happy with the team selection. I prefer to speak about the players that are playing,» he said. «I never gamble. We put out a strong team and a strong bench to try and win the game.» Attention will now turn to the return leg at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground in two weeks’ time. Chelsea will be the clear favorite to go through to the quarterfinals, based not just on reputation but statistics as well. The London club has not lost at home in the Premier League for just over four years and almost 80 games. Their last home defeat in the Champions League came at the same stage two years ago when Barcelona won 2-1 in London. Midfielder Michael Ballack, who was one of Chelsea’s better performers on Tuesday night, said that the Premiership side would put on a better display in the return tie against Olympiakos on March 5. «I expect another very difficult 90 minutes in the second leg as they showed today that they are a good team,» the German told uefa.com. «If one team makes a mistake, it could be crucial. But we are very strong at home and we will take more risks. I think we will see a more attacking Chelsea when we meet Olympiakos again… the tie at the moment is still dangerously balanced.» Takis Lemonis is aware of the size of the task that is facing Olympiakos but insists that nothing has changed from the moment the Piraeus club was drawn to play Chelsea in the knockout phase of the Champions League. «We will go to England to do the best we can and we hope we can continue to show the good side that we displayed in previous games,» he said. «I don’t know if we will qualify but what I do know is that we will try very hard in London.» Lemonis hopes to welcome back striker Lomana LuaLua, who moved to Olympiakos from England last summer, for the second leg in London. LuaLua was left out of Tuesday’s game after being deemed not 100 percent fit. His pace and skill was noticeably missing in the Olympiakos attack. «Our style of football means that LuaLua is a key player for us,» said the Olympiakos coach. «Unfortunately, he failed a fitness test this afternoon and, after having a chat with him, I left him out of the squad. I hope that we will have him with us in the return leg because he is an important player for us.» Olympiakos will need all the firepower it can muster for the game in London. It faces an uphill climb against Chelsea but, should it make it up that hill, it will stand on the brink of something truly memorable. Olympiakos has only made the quarterfinals of the Champions League once before and that was nine years ago when it were eliminated by Italian giant Juventus. Lemonis believes his players have the opportunity to be part of the best team in the club’s history. Late on March 5, he will know whether they are ready to grab that opportunity. [email protected]