Panathinaikos FC navigated a tricky path to securing their first Greek Super League title in six years on Sunday, but coach Nikos Nioplias says his side "never lost focus" along the way.
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Panathinaikos FC are celebrating after securing their 20th Greek title with midfielder Kostas Katsouranis saying: "We deservedly won, as we were the most consistent squad throughout the season."
A 2-0 victory over Iraklis FC in the penultimate league game – the Greens' 21st win of the season – gave Nikos Nioplias's charges an unassailable six-point lead over nearest challengers Olympiacos FC, who had beaten bottom-of-the-table Panthrakikos FC by the same margin.
The course to a first championship in six years was far from plain sailing, however. Panathanaikos took the early initiative at the start of the season but suffered a disappointing draw with Asteras Tripolis FC followed by a comprehensive defeat at Olympiacos to drop to second in the standings in November. That sequence was enough for then coach Henk ten Cate to be dismissed on 8 December, with Nioplias – whose previous coaching experience came solely with Greece's Under-19s and U21s – appointed as his successor.
"When I took over Panathinaikos, I was ready for the challenge," Nioplias said. "Perhaps lacking in experience, but nevertheless able to cope with the project. Even after the setbacks, we didn't dwell on them. The atmosphere in the locker room is excellent, so we were able to concentrate on the matches ahead and never lost our focus." Νioplias follows in the footsteps of Juan Ramon Rocha to become only the second man to win a league title with Panathanaikos as both player and coach.
Katsouranis, who joined from SL Benfica last summer, was keen to savour his first championship. "We deservedly won, as we were the most consistent squad throughout the season," said the 30-year-old. "We have great players, talented young guys and many people working tirelessly for this team."
Sotiris Ninis scored the second against Iraklis and added: "These moments are unique for the players and the fans. I am so happy. Our main goal was to win this league title. Even when we saw our eight-point advantage reduced to two in the final stretch, we didn't worry. We were determined to secure this title and we did it."
The league's leading marksman with 23 goals, Djibril Cissé, also acquired last summer, was equally delighted. "I am proud to clinch the top scorer's honour in Greece," said the French international. "It's the best season of my career, productivity-wise, but it's not over yet. There's one more league match and we also have the Greek Cup final ahead of us."
Panathinaikos do indeed have the opportunity for further celebration. On 24 April, they face Aris Thessaloniki FC in the Greek Cup final as they look to wrap up the domestic double.