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Antonis Nikopolidis knows his Olympiacos FC side are just a point away from guaranteeing a place in the UEFA Champions League first knockout round, but the goalkeeper is taking nothing for granted before Wednesday's meeting with Arsenal FC.
With Arsenal enjoying an unassailable lead atop Group H and tipped to field a weakened XI against the Greek titleholders, Nikopolidis knows his team should have more than just home advantage at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium. Second in the section, Olympiacos enjoy a three-point lead over R. Standard de Liège, though they would miss out on head-to-head record if they lose and the Belgian side beat eliminated AZ Alkmaar. The veteran keeper, who helped Greece win UEFA EURO 2004™ and will turn 39 next month, is well aware of the stakes.
"We are close, yet far away," he told uefa.com. "It will be tricky and we will have to put on our best performance. Let's not forget that so far this season we've been unlucky, with many important players sidelined. It's been a rough period, but we've managed to cope and as my team-mates recover and return to action, we only can get better."
Nikopolidis managed to cope with Arsenal's strikeforce for much of September's meeting between the sides in north London, before Robin van Persie and Andrei Arshavin struck in the last 12 minutes for a 2-0 win. Arsène Wenger, for one, was impressed: "Nikopolidis was not only good, he was intelligent as well because he read everything. You could see why he played for the Greek national team for such a long time."
The keeper himself called it a "special performance" and the prospect of a Matchday 6 decider will be another test. "A goalkeeper has to be patient and cash in on his experience," he said. "He has to observe everything that happens around him during the game … and what he wants from his defenders. He also has to keep observing his opponents, every player: how they take their penalties, how they shoot, their crossing skills, their finishing touches. That's why it's my firm belief that a goalkeeper's preparation is more mental than physical."
It is an analysis that begs an obvious question – how much longer can he keep doing it? Though he retired from international football in 2008, Nikopolidis has been a key figure in Olympiacos's domestic success since joining in 2004. "It's my mind, rather than my body, that will dictate when I retire," he said. "
When I'm no longer eager to play football, when I can't concentrate as hard as I want to, when other things besides football become more important; then it will be time to go. However, my main concern is to retire when I'm still top of my game and not deteriorating. I want people to remember me at my very best."
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