Twelve months ago, José Luis Mendilibar helped Sevilla lift the Europa League trophy. Will he be able to repeat the same with Olympiakos this year at a lower tier? Source: Olympiacos FC official Facebook / Facebook @OlympiacosFC
Twelve months ago, José Luis Mendilibar helped Sevilla lift the Europa League trophy. Will he be able to repeat the same with Olympiakos this year at a lower tier? Source: Olympiacos FC official Facebook / Facebook @OlympiacosFC

A coach, in charge for three months, has a chance to make history

Football OlyBet 28.05.2024

The times when the third European level competition meant nothing and when the winner was not even handed a trophy, but a letter of thank you reminiscent of a high school graduation certificate, are fortunately over. The Conference League, launched three years ago, is a series desired to be won, and this year its champion will be determined in Athens.

Olympiakos Piraeus and ACF Fiorentina will meet on May 29 at the 32,500-seat Agia Sophia Stadium in the Greek capital – the home arena of AEK Athens, named after the masterpiece of Byzantine architectural art, the Hagia Sophia Orthodox Church in Istanbul.

If the first of them wants to make history of domestic football – no Greek club has ever won a European level competition before – the second wants to correct mistakes, because, in last year’s Conference League final, the Italians had to admit the superiority of West Ham United.

It all started terribly

Since Olympiakos, playing at home, is also the de facto home team in the final, we will start with them in our preview. The 47-time Greek champion’s journey to the gold medal has been anything but logical, but that’s what makes it so intense.

The Greeks started their journey this year a step higher, from the Europa League, which they reached through the preliminary rounds: first, they overcame the Belgium Genk, then the Serbian Čukarički.

However, things did not go so well for them in the subgroup. They managed to earn a win and draw against Serbian TSC, but from the rest of the matches, West Ham United (England) and SC Freiburg (Germany) still took their share, which is why they finished third in the subgroup and were relegated to the Conference League.

Since at the same time, the domestic league was also in a mess, the club decided to fire the Spanish head coach Diego Matrinez. The Portuguese Carlos Carvahal was brought in to replace him, but he failed in just two months…

An incredible comeback in Israel

Then, on February 11, the current coach, the Spaniard José Luis Mendilibar, took the stand. And what has been achieved under his care? First, Hungarian Ferencváros were beaten, but then magic happened in the round of 16. The opening game against Maccabi Tel Aviv was lost 1:4, but a week later, this score was turned around in Israel, with a 6:1 win at the end of extra time.

However, the heated duels did not end there. In the quarterfinals, Olympiakos had to face Istanbul Fenerbache, and while they won 3:2 at home, they lost 0:1 away. However, in the penalty shootout that followed, Olympiakos goalkeeper Konstantinos Tzolaks saved three penalties – by Dušan Tadić, Cengiz Ünder and Leonardo Bonucci – and helped the Greeks to the semifinals.

There, Aston Villa, who came fourth in the Premier League this year, stood in their way, but to stop the momentum of the Englishmen, they needed none other than Ayoub El Kaabi, who scored five goals in two games and thus helped Olympiakos to the final.

As for the club’s performance in the Greek league, after a failed start, they ended up third, six points behind crowned champions PAOK.

Flawless Fiorentina

Fiorentina’s journey to the Conference League final has been much more straightforward, logical and, according to many, easier. Although they also had to start from the preliminary round, they were able to overcome the Austrians’ Vienna Rapid there. In the group stage, they performed even more consistently, with three wins and three draws [ Ferencváros (Hungary), Genk (Belgium) and Čukarički (Serbia)].

Source: Imago Images

A similar undefeated streak has also been maintained in the playoff games, where Maccabi Haifa (Israel), Plzeňi Viktoria (Czech Republic) and Club Brugge (Belgium) were defeated in succession. On the one hand, the 13-game undefeated journey is impressive, on the other hand – as football critics would love to say – the Italians have also faced clubs that are (significantly) weaker than themselves.

But how has Fiorentina, who is led by Vincenzo Italiano for the fourth year, performed in the home league? Generally, they’re on the rise. If two or three seasons ago they were at the bottom of Serie A, this year they fought for a place in a European level competition for the second year in a row.

Although due to the missed game – the club’s CEO Giuseppe Barone died suddenly on March 19, which led to the postponement of the match against Atalanta – their league season will not officially come to an end until the 2nd of June, it is already certain that Fiorentina will finish this season in eighth place, which would at least give them a place in the Conference League.

What are the head coaches saying?

Olympiakos coach José Luis Mendilibar: “When I came to Olympiakos [in February], I didn’t expect that we could go this far in Europe. At that time, I was still gathering information about the team. Over time, however, I began to believe that we could indeed perform well with this team in the league and in Europe. Reaching this far is a great source of joy for us – both for the players who work hard for it on the pitch, but perhaps even more so for the fans of Olympiakos.”

Fiorentina’s coach Vincenzo Italiano: “Olympiakos are a strong and aggressive team and if they were able to beat Aston Villa both at home and away, it shows that they have quality. Their centre-forward [Ayoub El Kaabi] is constantly scoring goals and they can play against you by pressing and counterattacking effectively. After all, we are essentially playing in their hometown, so you can only imagine what kind of atmosphere awaits us there.

However, this is our second straight Conference League final, and we want to take advantage of all the lessons we learned last year. It is a great opportunity to bring another trophy to Florence.”

Who to watch in the final?

You don’t need to be a fortune teller to understand who the key player for Olympiakos is. The striker of the Moroccan team, Ayoud El Kaabi, is the one who carried the Greeks this year. He has been especially deadly in the European level competitions, where he has recorded 15 hits in 18 games, but in the domestic league the nets have also rustled properly: 30 games and 17 goals.

Daniel Podence (15 goals, 13 assists), captain Konstantinos Fortounis (11 goals, 19 assists) and Georgios Masouras (9 goals, 7 assists) will ensure that the 30-year-old guy with fast legs would have balls to shoot to the net.

Fiorentina’s biggest threat is Nicolás González, a winger from the Argentine national team, who, despite not being a centre forward, has scored 15 times (plus 5 assists) this year. Lucas Beltrán has the most goals of the strikers (10), but central defender Lucas Martínez Quarta – watch this man! – and midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura have also scored eight goals.

The opening whistle of the Conference League final in Athens will be given on Wednesday, at 10 PM Estonian time. Two and a half hours later, at the latest, it will be known whether Olympiakos or Fiorentina fans will be cheering.


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