Olympiacos CFP coach Panagiotis Lemonis has overcome many challenges this season, yet perhaps the biggest will be keeping his side focused on their league meeting with Ergotelis FC tomorrow.
With Chelsea FC to follow in the UEFA Champions League on Tuesday it is easier said than done. Olympiacos have not contested a knockout round tie in the competition in nine years, and a buzz of anticipation is running through the Greek club. Lemonis has done his best to keep emotions in check during a stirring run to the last 16, but his calm and reflective demeanour away from the pitch contrasts sharply with his touchline persona. The sight of him living and breathing every kick has been a defining image of Olympiacos's campaign.
Victories against Werder Bremen on Matchday 2, the team's first away in the competition in 32 attempts, then on Matchday 6 when qualification was finally assured, will stick long in the memory. "The pressure caught up with me," he tells uefa.com, recalling an emotionally draining night in Bremen. "I felt proud for the team, because we had never won away in the UEFA Champions League before. It was a huge achievement for us."
It is a sign of Lemonis's popularity that his players ran to celebrate with him after Darko Kovačević struck the goal that subsequently sealed their place in the knockout stage. Lemonis is Olympiacos through and through, first a fan, then a player and now a coach. "Having grown up at Olympiacos makes it easier for me to understand the fans' mentality, to know what the club needs. On the other hand, a good professional is one who loves his work, nothing more, nothing less. And I adore my work."
His work is adored by Olympiacos supporters who have been riding the crest of a red-and-white wave this term. "We have dreamed of an Olympiacos like this," they sang as Bremen were brushed aside in December. Their club may have won ten titles in the last eleven seasons, yet they can be very hard to please. "On the final day of last season, the fans were shouting angrily about our performances. I believe the way we have approached our European matches this season, our level of commitment, has made them happy, not just the results."
For a decade Olympiacos have dominated domestically but come up short in Europe. The 48-year-old's priority has been to break the cycle. "Every season, the players felt compelled to do well. They were told that qualifying [from the group stage] was a one-way street, that their whole season depended on it. This year we played down the great expectations. We also changed our attitude and our playing style.
"We created a different squad, based on the collective and not only on two or three quality players. We changed our transfer policy. Instead of acquiring big names and hoping things would work out, we first decided on our tactics and then looked for the players to fit our plans. That was the turning point in Europe. In Greece, everybody expects Olympiacos to win every match by three or four goals, to attack constantly, but we're not ready to do that in Europe. We have to take one step at a time, learn how to react to each situation we're presented with. If people are patient, Olympiacos will do great things in the future because the foundations are excellent."
Lemonis spent eight years as a player with the Piraeus side and is now in his second spell as coach. He returned to the post in December 2006 and promptly guided them to the championship. He knows patience is an attribute few clubs possess and is in particularly short supply at Olympiacos right now. Put simply: Tuesday cannot come soon enough. "Chelsea are not the most spectacular team in Europe, truth be told, but they are strong in every aspect and very tough to beat. They are very compact, excellent in defence, and lethal in attack. In games like these, you have to keep errors to a minimum. Our chances will depend on how we play defensively, just like in our previous matches in the competition. Chelsea are favourites, of course, but we are determined to put up a fight."
That, above all, has been the hallmark of Olympiacos's success this term. They are the only Greek side still competing on three fronts and Lemonis will ensure they do not let their focus slip in any competition. "The only thing that bothers me is when I see my players lacking passion, strength or determination on the pitch," he says. "My only demand for the games against Chelsea is to be proud of our performances afterwards. We are waiting impatiently to see how the coming weeks unfold."
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