First-leg hosts boosted by raucous atmosphere and arrival of 'weak' Manchester United
Greek champions Olympiakos smell English blood
The elderly Olympiakos fan selling newspapers outside the Piraeus railway station asked a younger man to translate from Greek into English.
Against a backdrop of ships lined up to leave Europe’s largest passenger port under leaden skies and even darker economic times, the young man explained: “Now is the time of Olympiakos to beat Manchester. Olympiakos very strong. Manchester weak. Now we play you at our home.”
Monday’s sport newspapers in the man’s kiosk only had one story on their front page, Tuesday night’s Uefa Champions League last-16 first leg between Greek champions Olympiakos and Manchester United.
The pair met four times in the 1990s and United even wore blue at Old Trafford to avoid a clash of kits in one game. The Reds wearing blue were comfortable: United won all four matches against Greece’s most successful and powerful team of recent times, while Olympiakos scored in only one of those games.
The two ties in Greece were not played in Piraeus, the bustling port city linked intrinsically to Athens for millennia. Olympiakos played one game at the Olympic Stadium, another at the tiny ground of Apollon as the Olympic Stadium was being readied for the 2004 Summer Games.
Now, Olympiakos have their own home back in Pireaus, the modern 32,000-capacity bowl of the Karaiskakis Stadium, with an atmosphere rated as one of the best in European football. Although that figure will be reduced by 2,000 as punishment after a racist banner was unfurled during Olympiakos’ victory over Anderlecht in December.
Those fans smell blood. The English champions have never lost to a Greek side, having won eight and drawn two of their 10 ties. But those were all against Sir Alex Ferguson’s United, not a David Moyes team struggling in transition. United have seen long-standing unbeaten records toppled by several clubs this season.
Michel’s side are seeking a first quarter-final appearance since 1999, the year United won the treble. They have won the Greek title in 15 of the past 17 seasons and 24 of their 26 league games this campaign, yet it is a huge game for United, since it represents their only realistic chance of a trophy this term.
United’s poor season has emboldened the hopes of Olympiakos, but their form in Europe has been impressive.
Along with both Madrid giants – Atletico and Real – United are the only other team who are unbeaten in the Champions League so far.
After being eliminated by Real Madrid at the same stage a year ago, United were satisfied with this year’s draw, with coach Phil Neville saying: “It gives us a great opportunity to progress. If we take our form from the first group stage into the knock-out stage, then we have as good a chance as anyone of progressing.”
Striker Robin van Persie told Champions magazine: “Only one team can win it, and it’s very hard. It’s a trophy many players don’t win; once, if you’re very lucky.
“You have a couple of players who’ve won it more than once, but it’s a very special trophy everyone wants to win every year. It seems to get harder every year to win it, because the teams are getting better and better. So it’s always hard if you want something everyone wants.”
United, who will be supported by 2,000 followers of their own, have injury doubts involving several players: Marouane Fellaini, Jonny Evans, Phil Jones, Nani, Rafael da Silva and Danny Welbeck, while Olympiakos could be without Jose Holebas and Nelson Valdez, the on-loan Al Jazira striker.
They also sold Kostas Mitroglou, their leading goalscorer, to Fulham in the January transfer window.
Not that his departure affected the mood of the newspaper seller or his translator, who were in no doubt that Olympiakos are ready.