Beşiktaş have experienced too many European nights on which they squandered one, two, even three-goal leads. This was not one of them.
Leading 2-1 when opening goalscorer Vincent Aboubakar was dismissed on 39 minutes, they may have feared that Olympiacos 2016/17 would become the latest surrender for the list. Older fans still remember past capitulations against Steagul Roşu Brasov (1974/75 UEFA Cup) and Vålerenga (1998/99 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup), with the younger ones struggling to shake the memories of more recent collapses against Club Brugge (2014/15 UEFA Europa League) and Sporting CP (2015/16 UEFA Europa League).
Such fears evaporated, however, when Ryan Babel won an aerial duel, let the ball bounce and struck the Black Eagles’ third on 75 minutes. That made it 3-1 on the night, 4-2 on aggregate, with Cenk Tosun adding gloss later on. So how did Şenol Güneş manage to keep his players focused after going a man down?
“You get angry, you get upset, you think lots of things,” the coach said. “But then you start to think about what you have to do. I got a text message from a friend, saying maybe we should start the next game with ten men for extra motivation. That’s how football is – sometimes it all falls into place, sometimes it doesn’t.”
Güneş did not rush to make half-time changes, sticking with his starting line-up – minus Aboubakar – for another 15 minutes and asking his midfielders to drop deep and leave no space for Olympiacos’s attackers. Then, on the hour, Necip Uysal replaced Oğuzhan Özyakup to lend more muscle in the middle alongside Atiba Hutchinson. The two strong men denied the visitors the chance to dictate the tempo, while Adriano and a majestic Gökhan Gönül prevented Olympiacos stretching Beşiktaş on the flanks.
With around 20 minutes left, the stadium announcer called the supporters to get to their feet and remember past victories: “Dear Beşiktaş fans, we have beaten Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona and Liverpool here!” The crowd responded with a roar, and soon afterwards their team were back in command.
Doubling up as right-winger and lone striker in Aboubakar’s absence, Babel’s brutally effective evening was complete when the second of his two shots on target found the net. At least three Olympiacos players hit the deck imediately, knowing the battle was over. With everything hinging on who scored next after the red card, it was checkmate, with Cenk’s fourth just an afterthought.
The crowd knew who deserved the credit at the end, chanting Güneş’s name, though the manager was not interested; at that moment, he was laying into Cenk for being out of position in the 93rd minute with his side 4-1 up. That sort of attention to detail, that sort of passion, suggests this may not be Beşiktaş’s last great night of the season.