Olympiacos are not favorites to make it out of UEFA Champions League Group B, but you won’t find much more difficult away atmospheres than the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium. Unfortunately, that’s the test Tottenham Hotspur have in their first Champions League match of the 2019-20 campaign. The Thrylos finished second in the Greek Super League last season, five points behind champions PAOK, but went 19-2-3 at home in all competitions last season, including the Europa League.
This season, Olympiacos is undefeated, with eight wins and a draw. Entering the Champions League in the second qualifying round, they had to best three opponents in home-and-away series. They did so, easily — they waltzed past Viktoria Pilzen, Basaksehir, and FC Krasnodar, outscoring them 13-1 in the process. Including Champions League and the opening three matches of the Super League season, Olympiacos not only hasn’t lost at home, they have yet to concede a single goal. The Olympiacos fans are rabid, and the Karaiskakis Stadium is a fortress. This will not be an easy match.
Naturally, Olympiacos have yet to face any club near the level of Tottenham, but that may not matter — this is a team that will believe that they can beat anyone on their home turf. Thus far, they’ve been right.
But this is not a team loaded with young talent. Quite the opposite — it’s full of experienced pros, many of whom are heading into the twilight of their careers. Remember Matthieu Valbuena? He’s 34, and is starting in the Thrylos midfield. Their current leading scorer is 32-year old striker Youssef El-Araby. Winger Lazaros Christodoulopoulos is still kicking around Piraeus at age 32. Their star is probably 25-year old captain and forward Kostas Fortounis, who led the club in goals and assists last season but who injured his ACL and is out until January. But make no mistake, these are not spring chickens.
Even so, Tottenham should underestimate their Greek opponents at their peril. What they lack in youthful vigor they more than make up for in experience. They set up mostly in a 4-2-3-1, the midfield anchored by 28-year old Brazilian Guilherme, with Valbuena playing behind either El-Araby or Spaniard Miguel Angel Guerrero (29).
The key to success for Tottenham could be as simple as bringing back the high press, at least selectively. Mauricio Pochettino’s renowned fitness regimen should give them an edge if the match goes into the latter stages with a close result. Spurs certainly have more and younger talent at their disposal, and I would take the likes of Harry Kane, Dele, and Son Heung-Min against Olympiacos’ central defenders Yassine Meriah and Pape Abou Cisse. But what the Greeks will have on their side is an intimidating atmosphere and a whole lot of fight.
No, Olympiacos aren’t expected to make it out of their Champions League group. But then, neither were Ajax and look what happened last season.
How will Tottenham Hotspur line up against Olympiacos?
The main talking point after Tottenham’s 4-0 demolition of Crystal Palace on Saturday was Mauricio Pochettino saying that he plans to rotate his side heading into the next stretch of games. It makes sense — Spurs play, starting last Saturday, 7 games in 21 days, a stretch that includes trips to Olympiacos, Leicester City and Brighton, home ties against Bayern Munich and Southampton, and a definitely-not-a-banana-peel League Cup match at League 2 Colchester.
So yes, rotation is expected, but how much? Dele was rested completely and Tanguy Ndombele was given only a 15 minute cameo against Palace, so one would assume they will both be involved. Possibly Ben Davies as well, for the same reason. Serge Aurier could keep his place after his impressive display Saturday, or Kyle Walker-Peters might make his return to European competition now that he’s been back in training for a while.
Ultimately, I suspect that Poch may rotate a few players but will probably not want to leave his key cogs on the bench for what will be a tricky match in Greece. To me, that screams midfield diamond. I suspect the fullbacks will be rotated, with Dele coming in for Erik Lamela and likely one of Ndombele or Eric Dier making their debut. It’s not hard to see Lucas Moura coming in for Son Heung-Min either. And in this lineup, there’s no room for Moussa Sissoko.
A lot of the lineup choice will be made with both rotational and tactical considerations. I don’t have a firm sense of how Pochettino will want to handle this, so this is just a guess.
Here’s my prediction for Tottenham Hotspur’s lineup against Olympiacos in the Champions League. What’s yours?