SPORTS

Loss highlights league’s woes

Valencia departed a 4-2 winner from Karaiskaki Stadium Tuesday night in an opening Group D Champions League match against Olympiakos, highlighting a glaring and long-running problem in domestic soccer, which nobody seems to admit. Greek teams don’t stand a chance of making an impact in the Champions League unless a more competitive local league is established. Inevitably, standards differ when your Spanish opponent, for example, must rise to the occasion for big domestic games on a regular basis, while Olympiakos needs to do so just a couple of times a season. Add the major budget discrepancies to the equation, and Greek clubs don’t stand a chance. The Piraeus team began aggressively. But there’s no comparison in the challenge of confronting PAOK, which Olympiakos defeated 2-0 last weekend, and Valencia, an effective exponent of the 4-4-2 system that eventually vanquished the home team. Despite Olympiakos’s early momentum, the Spaniards created the game’s first opportunity, in the sixth minute, when a shot by Miguel Angel Angulo was blocked by Olympiakos goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis. A close-range free kick for Olympiakos in the 10th minute posed the visitor’s first threat. Rivaldo fed Moroccan Abdeslam Ouaddou, who headed off target. At this point, Olympiakos was generating some rhythm. But crosses from Predrag Djordjevic and new French signing Didier Domi led to nothing in the end. However, in the 28th minute, striker Michalis Constantinou opened the scoring after chest-controlling a splendid chipped pass from Ieroklis Stoltidis to shoot a low drive past Santiago Canizares. The goal set Karaiskaki Stadium alight. Unperturbed, Valencia was rewarded with two goals within five minutes, both from Fernando Morientes, in the 34th and 39th minutes, for a 2-1 lead at halftime. Highlighting the home side’s problems in defense, the Spanish striker was left with just the goalie Nikopolidis to beat both times. The second half began with Valencia advancing with ease. Olympiakos, pressured by the quest to seek an early equalizer, made numerous errors. The Spaniards came close to consolidating their lead, but David Villa was denied twice by goalie Nikopolidis. Constantinou came close to equalizing with a strong header in the 54th minute, but Valencia keeper Santiago Canizares intercepted with a fantastic fingertip save to oust for a corner kick. Olympiakos equalized in the 66th minute when Nery Alberto Castillo, the Greek league front runner’s top scorer, took full advantage of a long ball from Djordjevic to drive home a low effort. Olympiakos should have gone ahead in the 76th minute. But Rivaldo, with nobody to beat, blasted high and wide. The miss proved costly: Valencia defender Raul Albiol thundered in an unstoppable drive in the 85th minute, after a corner broke to him, to give Valencia a 3-2 lead. But there was more to come. With seconds left, Morientes sealed the win and earned a hat trick by soaring over Ouaddou to head in a corner by David Silva.