As the final whistle blew, confirming Anorthosis Famagusta’s qualification for the UEFA Champions League group stages, manager Temuri Ketsbaia sunk to his knees on the turf of the Giorgos Karaiskakis Stadium and raised his hands to the air in tribute to the football Gods. It was an image which epitomised one of the most miraculous moments in the history of Cypriot football, as Anorthosis became their country’s first ever participant in Europe’s most prestigious domestic competition with a thoroughly deserved 3-1 aggregate win over Greek champions Olympiakos.
A 1-0 home victory for the Greeks, courtesy of an accurate 53rd minute strike by Argentine Fernando Belluschi, was numerically insufficient in their attempt to overturn a 3-0 deficit that was set when Anorthosis stunned the Thrylos in Larnaca two weeks ago.
Despite dominating possession and spending the most part of the match camped in the Anorthosis half, Olympiakos rarely managed to break down the Cypriot outfit, marshalled by Greece international and former AEK man Traianos Dellas.
In fact, Anorthosis started the second-leg encounter without the services of veteran midfielder Giannis Skopelitis, with former Real Madrid man Savio having to be content with a place on the substitute’s bench.
Former Espanyol manager Ernesto Valverde made some fundamental changes to the Olympiakos side that collapsed in Cyprus, with Argentine duo Sebastian Leto – on loan from Liverpool – and Fernando Belluschi both handed starts. Despite predictably naming an attacking line-up, the Spaniard surprisingly decided to leave club legend Predrag Djordjevic on the bench, whilst Dudu Cearense was handed his competitive debut in midfield.
Ironically, it was the visiting side threatening early on, despite their sensibly conservative set-up. Ketsbaia’s team came extremely close to scoring a tie-winning goal on 21’ minutes, as Olympiakos barely managed to clear the ball out of their own box.
Paraskevas Antzas was then outpaced on the right-hand side of the penalty area, with the ball squared across the face of goal for the approaching Laban. The Frenchman was about to get a crucial touch on the ball but the Olympiakos defence managed to hack it clear with Nikopolidis stranded off his line, in a move that was reminiscent of Anorthosis’ opening goal in the first leg.
It was an otherwise uninspiring first half of football with only the odd set-piece effort from Olympiakos saved by the excellent Beqaj and an effort blasted over the bar from the edge of the box by towering Serbian striker Darko Kovacevic, who was starved of quality service throughout the match.
As the Cypriots maintained their discipline and shape, Olympiakos received no sympathy from German referee Herbert Fandel, who moved quickly to stamp out any suggestion of simulation and to ignore the pressures of a partisan home crowd.
In an attempt to galvanize his side, Olympiakos manager Valverde introduced Greece U21 international Konstantinos Mitroglou at half-time, sacrificing summer signing Dudu from midfield. The 20 year-old striker had missed a crucial penalty during the first-leg of the encounter, when he saw his spot-kick come back off the post with the Cypriots leading 2-0.
His introduction at the Karaiskakis Stadium coincided with a transformation in the body language of the Olympiakos players, as their attacking play began to approach something of a recognisable pattern.
With Anorthosis entrenched deep inside their own half, the Greeks took the lead in slightly unorthodox circumstances in the 53rd minute of the match. Ketsbaia’s outfit were unable to effectively clear the ball, allowing it to fall to Belluschi outside the box. The Argentine produced a low effort that curled along the floor, through a crowd of bodies and beyond the outstretched arms of Beqaj to make it 1-0.
Mitroglou almost doubled Olympiakos’ lead just four minutes later, as the Greek champions threatened to overrun their opponents from Cyprus. The striker almost succeeded where Kovacevic had failed with a similar attempt during the first-half, chesting the ball down in the area before taking an extra touch and producing a half-volley that forced a sharp saved from Beqaj.
The Greeks continue to press for an equaliser and two minutes later winger Luciano Galletti let fly from long-range, only to see his driven effort pushed out for a corner thanks to another good save by the Anorthosis shot-stopper.
The eventual introduction of Predrag Djordjevic for Sebastian Leto helped maintain the relentless push for an equaliser by Olympiakos but to their credit, Anorthosis maintained their composure.
There was nothing they could have done about Djordjevic’s free-kick attempt on 71’ minutes however, as the Serb international produced an effort that curled over the wall and flashed just past Beqaj’s left-hand post, with the effervescent goalkeeper rooted to the spot.
Veteran midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis also saw his deflected shot from outside the box skid narrowly past the ‘keeper’s left-hand post with just over ten minutes remaining but it was the closest Olympiakos would come on a night where they were constantly frustrated by a mixture of resolute defending, solid goalkeeping and their own inability to create clear goal-scoring opportunities.
The final whistle brought with it scenes of jubilation both on and off the pitch for Anorthosis, with a strong contingent of travelling fans from Cyprus celebrating wildly on a famous night for Cypriot football. Neutral viewers might have found it slightly ironic that the flags being flown by the visiting supporters were predominantly Greek but it will most likely be forgotten in the context of the historic achievement of Temuri Ketsbaia and his players.
Olympiakos, meanwhile, will parachute into the UEFA Cup and must now prepare for a potentially difficult opening Greek Super League match at home to Asteras Tripolis on Saturday.
Olympiakos 1-0 Anorthosis Famagusta
1-0 Belluschi 53'
Olympiakos: Nikopolidis, Torosidis, Antzas (69’ Patsatzoglou), A. Papadopoulos, Leonardo, Galletti, Stoltidis, Dudu (46’ Mitroglou), Leto (63’ Djordjevic), Belluschi, Kovacevic
Anorthosis Famagusta: Beqaj, A Constantinou, Dellas, Katsavakis, Leiwakabessy, Ocokoljic, Paulo Costa, Dobrašinović, Bardon (58’ Da Silva Ferraz), Laban, Sosin (82’ Samaras)