Pitchside Europe

Olympiacos celebrate almost-title


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Fans of Greek football awoke on Monday morning to find their country's national championship, the Super League, in a curious state of suspended animation. Those of an Olympiacos persuasion may well have rolled out of bed nursing sore heads after a night spent toasting their club's 39th league title success but — officially at least — nothing has been decided yet.

Olympiacos' 1-0 victory at Panaitolikos on Sunday left them four points clear of second-placed Panathinaikos with three matches of the season remaining. However, the gap is effectively an unassailable 10 points because Panathinaikos were docked three points and Olympiacos were awarded a 3-0 victory after serious violence forced last month's Athens derby at the Olympic Stadium to be abandoned.

Panathinaikos decided to appeal against the Super League's decision to punish them and their appeal will be heard by the Hellenic Football Federation on Wednesday, when it is widely expected that the league table will be verified and Olympiacos' title celebrations will be able to begin in earnest.

Few in attendance at the Panaitolikos Stadium in Agrinio on Sunday night will have been left in any doubt as to the outcome of the title race, however. Ernesto Valverde's players cavorted in the middle of the pitch at the final whistle, while an arresting photo of Algerian winger Djamel Abdoun enjoying the post-match festivities in the away dressing room began to circulate on Twitter.

"At such moments the atmosphere is always happy," said captain Vassilis Torosidis. "We lost our way a bit in January, which is normal. No team in the world can always be at their best. Fortunately, we picked ourselves up and kept going and for me the depth of our squad was the decisive factor for us this season."

Fittingly, the goal that looks set to give Olympiacos the title came from top scorer Kevin Mirallas, who took his tally to 19 goals for the campaign with a measured finish in the 54th minute. A flop at Saint-Etienne, where he scored only three goals in 53 Ligue 1 appearances, the 24-year-old Belgium international has been the sensation of the season in Greece, having already contributed 14 goals to Olympiacos' title success last term.

It is in many respects a Misfits XI. The pass for Mirallas's goal at Panaitolikos came from Jean Makoun, the on-loan Cameroon midfielder who has found his feet in the port city of Piraeus after his three-year spell at Lyon came to an underwhelming conclusion last year and he failed to convince at Aston Villa.

Watching on from the substitutes' bench, meanwhile, was Roy Carroll. Apparently destined to be remembered for getting away with one of the worst fumbles in goalkeeping history while playing for Manchester United against Tottenham Hotspur in January 2005, the Northern Irishman made an unexpected return to the headlines in February when he saved a penalty with his very first touch as an Olympiacos player after coming on as a substitute following the dismissal of Balazs Megyeri in a 1-0 Europa League win at Rubin Kazan.

"Players like Mirallas and [Olof] Mellberg had a point to prove and have done so by showing an effort coupled with their undoubted quality," says George Georgakopoulos, who covers Greek football for the Kathimerini daily. "The fact that they put an effort in certainly made the difference."

The title triumph has also provided further vindication for 48-year-old Valverde, who left Olympiacos in 2009 after he was unable to agree a contract extension - despite having led the club to a league and cup double - and who was then sacked after barely half a season in charge at Villarreal.

Underlining the fans' joy is the inevitable schadenfreude at the fate of their sworn enemies Panathinaikos, who must play four matches behind closed doors due to the violence in the derby and who will begin the 2012-13 campaign with a two-point deduction. With a rivalry so intense, no sooner has one season ended than the next has already begun.

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