There were a lot of heroes in the Panathinaikos FC team that defeated AS Roma 3-2 at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome to reach the last 16 of the UEFA Europa League 6-4 on aggregate, but one player, in particular, came in for special praise.
Starting one of his most high-profile matches yet, 19-year-old Sotiris Ninis responded with a masterful display laced with three acts of brilliance in six minutes before the break that effectively brought the tie to a premature end. His performance was enough for Djibril Cissé, Ninis' attacking accomplice, to describe him as "the future of Greek football".
"Of course it was a special occasion and I'm happy to have given a good account of myself," said the Albanian-born teenager, cutting a mature figure at the end of the match. "I was involved in the moves that brought the three goals but I'm just keeping my head on the ground at the moment. There was a great atmosphere in the stadium but it was important to keep a cool head. I think we did that tonight and that's why we came away with the win."
After John Arne Riise's 11th-minute goal, the No7 turned the tie on its head when he danced into the box provoking an errant tackle from Daniele De Rossi. After Cissé had equalised, the deep-lying forward twisted on the edge of the box and silenced the boisterous home support with a low, top-spinning strike that picked up pace despite a short back lift to defeat Doni's desperate hand. Then, with a shell-shocked Giallorossi searching for some way back into the match, the impish player split the Rome defence with the perfect through ball for his strike partner to make it 3-1.
"Ninis is a fantastic player – he's a real talent," gushed the Frenchman. "He's still young and he showed today why he's the future of the Greek football."
Other team-mates were equally effusive about Ninis but balanced their praise with advice for the young hot-shot. "He's a very talented young player," said Gilberto Silva, who missed the match through injury. "As I've said before, I hope people don't put too much pressure on him. He's still very young and has a lot to learn but he can improve. He has been more consistent this season and this is what we need."
Defender Josu Sarriegi was no less demanding of a player reportedly wanted by a number of top clubs: "He played fantastic but he has to improve more. He has to try and try and try more because he could be a great, great, great player."
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