What a difference a month makes. In early October, Olympiacos FC were on the rack in UEFA Champions League Group B. An opening 2-1 home defeat by FC Schalke 04 and a 3-1 loss at Arsenal FC had left the Greek champions without a point and doubting their ability to make the step up in Europe. The Piraeus outfit were in dire need of asserting themselves.
Back-to-back matches against Montpellier Hérault SC have not gone to waste. More experienced than the French side, they have been clinical in both encounters, winning 2-1 in France and 3-1 on home soil.
Aside from the six points and fresh hope of qualifying, the victories against Montpellier have also answered questions raised earlier in the campaign. Yes, there is life after Olof Mellberg in defence. Yes, new signings Paulo Machado and Leandro Greco are tactically astute and have settled into their new surroundings. And yes, Kostas Mitroglou has it in him to justify his billing as the most potent striker in Greek football.
Furthermore, coach Leonardo Jardim's status has been enhanced. The Portuguese trainer had the 'misfortune' of succeeding fan and players' favourite Ernesto Valverde, and his every move is analysed accordingly. The 38-year-old, a June appointment, is growing into his first UEFA Champions League job, however. He has shown shrewd flexibility recently in shuffling his pack to accommodate for injuries to the likes of Rafik Djebbour, Pablo Contreras, Ariel Ibagaza and David Fuster.
Jardim opted for an attacking approach in both games against Montpellier, much to the approval of the Olympiacos faithful. He has consistently stood by his decisions, confident they would eventually pay off. Portugal midfielder Machado is a prime example – nervous during his initial months in Athens, he has since matured, aided by the unerring faith of his coach.
Euphoria aside, Olympiacos know the hard work is just beginning in Group B. The trip to Gelsenkirchen, and leaders Schalke, on matchday five could make or break their hopes of qualifying, with a testing visit of Arsenal to follow. Do Olympiacos have what it takes to eliminate one of the two favourites to advance?
Their first two reverses seemed to suggest the quality divide is too large and that has not changed. What has altered, though, is the mood in the Olympiacos camp. They can return from Germany with their ambitions intact yet will need to play the perfect match; their tactics will have to be spot on and mistakes must be minimal. Then, and only then, will Olympiacos have the right to say they have single-handedly narrowed the gap between Greek football and the rest of Europe. A big ask, yes, but it appears far more feasible than it did two weeks ago.
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