Olympiacos FC sealed a place in the round of 16 for the first time in four years, pipping SL Benfica to second spot in Group C thanks to a superior head to head record.
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Olympiacos FC clinched a UEFA Champions League round of 16 berth for the first time in four years after pipping SL Benfica to second spot in Group C by virtue of a superior head-to-head record.
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Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras once said: "The beginning is half of the whole." The Greek title holders did not take heed, however, opening their campaign with a 4-1 home loss to Paris Saint-Germain. Still, there were encouraging signs and things started to click when Kostas Mitroglou hit a hat-trick in a 3-0 win at RSC Anderlecht. Míchel's side then sparkled, drawing 1-1 with Benfica in Lisbon and triumphing 1-0 in the reverse fixture a fortnight later. Only a late Edinson Cavani effort denied them a point in Paris on matchday five, yet they recovered to down Anderlecht 3-1 and progress to the knockout stage.
A hard-earned 1-1 draw at Benfica in challenging conditions on 23 October convinced Olympiacos they were on the verge on something special. The visitors put in a classy display in Lisbon, Alejandro Domínguez opening the scoring with a cool finish from Mitroglou's judiciously weighted pass. Although Óscar Cardozo restored parity with seven minutes remaining, Olympiacos rode out the storm to claim a crucial point.
Key player: Roberto
"It is the first time I have seen a goalkeeper deal with everything that was thrown at him. His performance was simply unbelievable," rued Benfica coach Jorge Jesus after enduring a virtuoso performance from the Olympiacos keeper on matchday four. Roberto's penchant for the spectacular was clear from the outset as he denied Paris's Zlatan Ibrahimović from the spot in Piraeus and, in similar circumstances, Aleksandar Mitrović of Anderlecht two weeks later. The Spanish stopper, 27, also produced two outstanding saves in the final-day defeat of Anderlecht.
Rising star: Andreas Samaris
Few could have predicted the career trajectory of the 24-year-old Samaris after he returned from last season's loan at Panionios GSS. But with a void to fill in front of the back four, Samaris has answered Míchel's call to superb effect. An imposing figure with an eye for a pass, the midfielder played every minute of Olympiacos's group campaign, being rewarded with his first three Greece caps.
Mitroglou became the first Greek to hit a hat-trick in the UEFA Champions League when he fired three goals past Anderlecht in Brussels.
"I will not buy my players dinner – I don't think I'll be able to sleep for the next three nights! My players deserved to win and qualify, but they did it the hard way. They aged me ten years!"
Olympiacos boss Míchel after his team held their nerve to book a round of 16 date
Next challenge: Manchester United FC
Olympiacos must overcome the weight of history to advance having lost their last four UEFA Champions League encounters with United. While there is scope for optimism given the Red Devils' mixed Premier League form, United still emerged from Group A unbeaten and boasting the meanest defence in the competition.