Olympiakos v Arsenal
Thursday 11 March, 20:00
Live on BT Sport 2
Olympiakos have proven their mettle
Not only was knocking out Dutch giants PSV in the round of 32 a notable and highly impressive result, but the manner of Olympiakos’ triumph caught the eye. Having defeated Roger Schmidt’s side 4-2 in Athens, the Greek champions went 2-0 down in Eindhoven, and were sliding out of the competition. They kept on plugging away, and Egyptian striker Koka scored the goal that put Pedro Martins’ side into the last 16.
Olympiakos are used to winning domestically, and have recently returned to the peak of Greek football after a wobble that briefly handed the reins to PAOK. In Europe, they tend to struggle in the Champions League (they lost five of their six group games this term), but in the Europa League they knocked Arsenal out last season, and in 2018 they secured a 3-1 home win against Milan.
Olympiakos’ only home defeats this term were against Porto and Manchester City in the Champions League, and given their recent success against Arsenal, this tie won’t produce any undue fear. Even in the Champions League, Martins’ team has only lost three of the last 10 at home.
Striker Youssef El-Arabi, who scored the decisive goal in last season’s clash with Arsenal, has rattled in 19 goals in all competitions. French veteran Mathieu Valbuena remains a joy to watch at times, although he’s not the creative force he once was, and former Arsenal defender Sokratis offers strength and experience at the heart of defence. Sokratis is expected to feature, with Ruben Semedo out injured.
Arteta must prioritise Greek adventure
For many years now, Arsenal have been associated with a certain fragility, a softness when the pressure is on. Although they are still capable of extraordinary feats of self-destruction (Bernd Leno’s recent red card against Wolves, Burnley’s absurd equaliser at the weekend), they have at least shown under Mikel Arteta that they can find a way to win the big games. They overcame elite opposition in last season’s FA Cup semi-final and final, and in the previous round of this competition, they turned around a 2-1 deficit against Benfica to win 3-2. Arsenal haven’t always had that capacity to dig deep and find a way to scrape through.
However, the progress under Arteta is being achieved at a glacial pace. The Gunners are as close to the Premier League relegation zone as they are to the top four, and that’s why the pragmatic approach is to suggest that this game at Olympiakos is more important than Sunday’s North London derby against Tottenham. It will be interesting to see whether that sensible order of priorities is reflected in Arteta’s team selection. The manager has taken this tournament seriously from the get-go, so a strong team selection looks likely.
One guy who seems almost certain to start is Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The captain looks to have regained his sharpness, and he has scored ten goals in his last 14 appearances, including a vital winner against Benfica. Hector Bellerin could return at right-back, while Emile Smith Rowe remains a doubt because of injury.
Gunners too short to be trusted
Although Arsenal recently won on this ground in Athens against Benfica, I can’t get excited about backing them to win this at 1.9720/21. The Gunners are simply too inconsistent, and they have given away awful goals recently against Benfica and Burnley. Olympiakos are an experienced, obdurate outfit with a talented coach, and even without their usual backing, I expect them to push Arsenal hard here.
Arsenal have only won four of their last ten away games (five of 11 if you include the Benfica win in Athens), and I’ll lay them here at 1.9720/21. I think their quality may tell over the tie, but they might have to play the long game.
Auba to strike again?
I tipped Aubameyang to score at odds-against in the second leg against Benfica, and I’d expect him to be trading at around evens or a shade above to find the net here. On the Olympiakos side of things, the dangerous and experienced El-Arabi is attractively priced at 3.02/1 – he has scored in five of his last seven appearances.