Olympiacos CFP reached the UEFA Champions League last 16 for the first time in nine seasons after an inspirational display from Ieroklis Stoltidis helped the Greek champions to a stunning victory over Group C rivals Werder Bremen in Athens.
Second place secured
Midfielder Stoltidis, who shares his first name with the mythical Greek warrior Hercules, proved the hero of the hour, scoring twice and providing an assist for Darko Kovacević as Panagiotis Lemonis's team advanced from the group stage for the first time since 1998/99 when they were quarter-finalists. Olympiacos go through as group runners-up while Thomas Schaaf's Bremen have the consolation of a UEFA Cup spot having finished third following Real Madrid CF's 3-1 win over S.S. Lazio.
A tentative opening had been predicted by both coaches yet Bremen, who needed the victory, could have scored as early as the eighth minute when Diego's shot was saved by Antonios Nikopolidis and Anastasios Pantos did enough to ensure Boubacar Sanogo fired wide from the rebound. This sparked Olympiacos into life and four minutes later the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium erupted when Stoltidis made the breakthrough with a superb effort, collecting Lomana LuaLua's pass before unleashing a fierce drive from 20 metres past Bremen goalkeeper Tim Wiese and into the bottom right-hand corner.
The lively LuaLua then went close with two snap shots in the space of four minutes before Bremen reacted with Tim Borowski's long-range attempt. Markus Rosenberg then exposed the vulnerability of Nikopolidis with another effort which the home keeper spilled before rescuing the situation with a sprawling save as Sanogo closed in. Olympiacos suffered a setback when Christos Patsatzoglou went off injured midway through the first half to be replaced by youngster Konstantinos Mendrinos, yet the hosts continued to press.
LuaLua burst clear again a minute before the half-hour but the resulting lay-off failed to find Luciano Galletti and Wiese smothered the ball. Although Naldo, with a header, then Daniel Jensen, with a shot, both threatened as Bremen sought a way back into the game, Kovacević was guilty of wasting a glorious chance shortly before the break. LuaLua's sublime pass sent him clear down the left but the Serbian veteran shot straight at Wiese.
A strong start to the second period from Bremen almost yielded an equaliser but Naldo's header was cleared off the line by Mendrinos following Diego's corner. Tensions rose as the Bundesliga team applied the pressure and Nikopolidis had to be alert to block Sanogo's header from point-blank range just after the hour. Sanogo volleyed centimetres wide minutes later yet that proved to be his last contribution as he was replaced by Hugo Almeida. The change was in vain, however, as Olympiacos struck their second after 70 minutes.
Stoltidis made another vital contribution, sending over a pinpoint cross from the left for Kovacević, who rose above Naldo to score with a towering header. Stoltidis then capped a flawless display four minutes later by firing in Kovacević's knockdown from Galletti's corner. Vassilis Torosidis almost made it 4-0 late on but his lob was pawed away by Wiese.