08 December 2015

How Olivier will overpower Olympiakos...

0-2. 1-3. 2-3. These (or better) are the scorelines we'll need to advance to the Champions League group-stage for a 16th consecutive season. There's nothing to gain for Olympiakos and quite a bit to lose, as they have no chance of winning the group—even if they win, they'd reach 12 points, a level Bayern is already at before visiting Dinamo Zagreb. Even if Bayern lose, they hold a 7-0 aggregate advantage over Olympiakos. In other words, we should all expect the Greeks to sit way, way back, defend in numbers, and all but refuse to get forward, the rare exception being if all of our players decide to play dead and flop to the ground. Even then, I suspect that our hosts will simply clear the ball and wait. What to do, then?

If Bayern can't handle him, how can Olympiakos?
Well, we've sewn up a spot in the Europa League, courtesy of our +2 aggregate advantage over Dinamo. Should the Croatians win in Munich, they'd rise to nine, level with us—but we'd still finish third in the group thanks to that 0-3 win. Therefore, with nothing to lose except our Thursday nights, and quite a lot to gain, we have no option other than to hit Olympiakos so hard that they curl up in the corner and accept their fate.

But how?

They're sure to sit back in a 4-4-1 or something similar, defending narrow and packing the box with defenders. Even before this match, Olympiakos have kept only 40.5% possession, third-lowest in the Champions League behind the truly overmatched Malmo FF and BATE Borisov. We're sure to keep something close to if not better than 60% possession, but what do we do with it? After all, in losing at the Emirates, we kept 67.9% possession but lost 2-3.

Brace yourselves: it comes down to the much-maligned Olivier Giroud.

He didn't play against Olympiakos in the first fixture, but he'll have to on Wednesday, and not just because neither Walcott nor Alexis is fully fit. With Olympiakos packing defenders into the box, we will need his height and physicality to keep those defenders busy, to present himself as a target for crosses, and to earn us set-pieces. While keeper Roberto and central defenders Siovas and Bota offer height, none of them is particularly strong in the air. Much as I hate to admit it, we may have to largely abandon any notions of hitting on counter-attacks or picking apart their defense through intricate passing and movement off the ball. Instead, we may have to send in cross after cross after cross into the box, hoping that Giroud can score, earn a set-piece, or create a chance for runners like Campbell, Ox, or Ramsey to finish.

With Giroud Greco-Roman wrestling in the area, anything can happen. A near-post goal. A ball chested down for someone to volley home. Heck, he might even earn us a spot-kick. Olympiakos are hardly a defensively minded outfit. In the group, they've conceded ten goals, and they've hardly been stingy in the Greek Super League, which they dominate to an embarrassing degree: they narrowly escaped a visit to cellar-dwellers Panthrakakikos Komotini, winning 3-4 thanks to two spot-kicks. Prior to that match, Pantrakakikos had scored eight goals in 12 matches.

Remember that, last season, we needed an 0-3 result against an AS Monaco side renowned for its defensive stubbornness, to overcome a 1-3 first leg loss. We got to 0-2. This visit to Greece is similar, except for the part where Olympiakos can't defend nearly as well. While that's far from a guarantee that we'll qualify for the Champions League knockout-stage, it's got to be enough to inspire a gritty kind of confidence, not just among us fans, but among our players as well.

Our path to the knockout-stage is a tough one, no doubt, but Giroud's shoulder to the wheel should be just enough to clear that path.