Trouble simmering at leader Olympiakos

Just days ago, all appeared sound at Olympiakos as the club enjoyed a sturdy lead in the Greek soccer league, well past the season’s half-way mark. But Sunday’s shock 2-1 loss in Crete to struggling first-division newcomer Ergotelis, which narrowed the Piraeus club’s lead over second-placed archrival Panathinaikos, has unsettled feelings at Olympiakos and, yet again, has highlighted how fickle the politics behind Greek soccer can be. The coaching job of Dusan Bajevic, without a doubt the most successful in Greek soccer, with numerous titles at both at AEK and Olympiakos, could apparently be on the line, a crucial test being this Thursday night’s UEFA Cup third-round, return leg against Sochaux in France. Olympiakos will defend last week’s 1-0 win at home. According to pundits, the club’s president, businessman Socrates Kokkalis, may consider taking drastic action should the Greek team fail to advance to the competition’s fourth round. If so, it would be the latest in a seemingly irrational series of coaching changes over the past few years, despite the club’s domination of domestic soccer over the past decade. Kokkalis has hired and fired some 20 coaches during his 11-year reign at the club, one of Greece’s two biggest, even though Olympiakos has won seven of the past eight league titles. During this time, however, the team has made little impact on European club-level soccer. Kokkalis, at this season’s outset, made very clear his aspirations of better performance beyond the domestic scene, meaning at least a second-round berth in the Champions League. This the club failed to do, but only marginally, after rivals, tied on points with the Greek team, edged it out with better overall records. Subsequently, as consolation for earning third spot in its group, Olympiakos is now doing battle in the less prestigious UEFA Cup. Elimination on Thursday could spell big trouble at the ambitious club, whose administration has invested heavily in its newly built Karaiskaki Stadium. Throughout the season, fans have packed the modern stadium for the club’s domestic and European engagements alike. But a recent four-week home game spectator ban imposed on the club for the outbreak of nasty fan violence in a league clash with Panionios has deprived the Olympiakos administration of hefty earnings, which has presumably accentuated the tension of recent days. Several names as possible coaching replacements have already been tossed around unofficially, one of them being former club player Nikos Anastopoulos, who, last season, promoted Corfu club Kerkyra to the first division for the first time in its history, but who was swiftly sacked after it failed to stand firmly in the top league. He had been offered the job at Olympiakos last year, prior to Bajevic’s appointment, but refused in order to guide Kerkyra to the first division. At the time, however, Anastopoulos was quoted as saying: «It is a big dream of mine to work with Olympiakos. I think I’ve reached this point. But at present, I want to promote Kerkyra.» He is currently unemployed. Not long before this latest outbreak of discontent at Olympiakos, Kokkalis needed to intervene to restore calm after star Brazilian striker Rivaldo, a lucrative signing who has completed only a quarter of his two-year contract worth 1.8 million euros per annum, reacted strongly after being substituted by Bajevic. It was the second time Rivaldo has revolted against his coach. Kokkalis, in the latest instance, quickly stepped in and offered firm public backing for Bajevic. Rivaldo downplayed the incident. Bajevic, making his position clear, was quoted by an Athens sports daily, Protathlitis, as saying, «If I can’t make the changes that I want to make, then I cannot be the coach for Olympiakos.» Bajevic replaced Rivaldo midway through the second half last Sunday in a move that was disliked by many at the club. The latest reports and developments do not seem to reassure the widely respected coach of his boss’s full backing. Thursday night’s UEFA Cup return leg could prove instrumental.

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