MARCH TO MOSCOW CONTINUES
Before Saturday, this game could have been seen as a fairly large banana skin. Olympiakos are a good domestic side in Greece, Chelsea have been struggling for form, the name ‘Avram Grant’ was set to replace the words ‘Rafa’ and ‘Benitez’ in the Oxford English Dictionary of synonyms for the phrase ‘dead man walking’, and we were (yet again) supposed to be a team in crisis. And then we played West Ham. And beat them 4-0. Away. With ten men. And Ashley Cole scored! Anyone else ridiculously confident now?
After weeks, months, and what at times seemed like an eternity, of injury after injury for our squad, it is odd to be at a point where a full quota is available for selection. Rather than pick the only players who are available, Grant is now forced to pick players by form. The selection for the West Ham game showed he can choose a decent XI, so with good performances all round, it will be interesting to see who gets the nod this time round. Claude Makelele, Joe Cole and Michael Essien have featured in every game so far in the Champions League this season, and Essien will pick up a one-game suspension if he features and collects a yellow card.
Olympiakos sit in second place in the Greek Super League and their title hopes took a hit on Saturday with a 1-1 draw against surprise package Asteras Tripolis, but the game was marred by a serious injury to Lomana Tresor Lua Lua. The former Colchester United, Newcastle United and Portsmouth striker suffered a dislocated shoulder in the closing minutes of the game, and will be out for about six weeks. He joins attacking midfielder Luciano Galletti on the sidelines as Olympiakos rue the absence of key players. Goals may be hard to find with potential scorers ruled out, however with reliable veteran ‘keeper Antonios Nikopolidis between the sticks, they may not concede too many either.
All Olympiakos need is a score draw to progress due to the away goals rule so they are likely to sit back and wait for chances to materialise rather than push forward for a goal. A packed midfield could take the field which Chelsea will have to negotiate, and expect an attacking performance as we look for goals of our own.
The trouncing of West Ham will be a huge boost for confidence of both the players and Grant, who would have enjoyed the win that much more after scathing criticism in the past few weeks from fans and pundits alike. He could enhance his reputation that much more with progression in the Champions League, while defeat to Olympiakos is unthinkable. Make or break time again then, let’s hope he handles the pressure and jumps the latest hurdle in what has been an obstacle-laden season.
Prediction: Another 4-0 is far too much to ask, so I’m going for a measly 2-0 win. Olympiakos will frustrate and irritate, we just need to keep our heads and play how we know we can. We’ll be in the draw for the Quarter-Finals and one step closer to Moscow.