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The hidden gems and Premier League misfits leading Olympiacos to Greek football history

Aston Villa, the only English left in Europe, are preparing for a semi-final in the Europa Conference League, but ultimately believe they will eventually reach a higher place than the third tier of European club football.

For their opponents, Olympiacos, this is as big as it gets for them in recent years, and they are doing it with some of the castaway members from Premier League clubs.

It is a first-ever appearance in a European semi-final for Thrylos, their place in the final four has been in jeopardy on multiple occasions along the way.

 (EPA)
(EPA)

Initially, they started the season in the Europa League but were dumped out of a group that featured Freiburg and West Ham, who they beat 2-1 at home.

A third-placed finish saw them fall into the Conference League and a relatively easy progression past their round-of-32 opponents Ferencvaros, set them up with an opening home leg against Maccabi Tel Aviv.

And it couldn’t have gone much worse, a 4-1 thumping at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium left most fans accepting another European campaign came to an abrupt and ruthless end.

Last year’s Europa League winning coach, Jose Luis Mendilibar, is now in charge of Olympiacos, but an exit looked likely at that stage.

Emerson battling for the ball in West Ham’s 2-1 defeat to Olympiacos in the Europa League (AP)
Emerson battling for the ball in West Ham’s 2-1 defeat to Olympiacos in the Europa League (AP)

He said: “It’s going to be very difficult to come back from this. We will need a quick goal and even one is not nearly enough.”

Luckily for Mendilibar, who is the third permanent Olympiacos coach this season and had never managed outside of his native Spain before, former Wolves winger Daniel Podence scored after 10 minutes to ignite belief.

The Greek side battled back to take it to extra time, and Stevan Jovetic, who played 44 games for Manchester City, scored the winning goal as Olympiacos secured their greatest-ever comeback.

Despite the stress endured by Olympiacos fans across the country, they are a side that have thrived off being an underdog and their most memorable continental nights have come when doubted.

They have often proved to be Arsenal’s bogey team in the Champions League and Europa League, while also recording historic wins against Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Rivaldo was the star when they beat Madrid in 2005, and although they don’t have a Ballon d’Or winner in their ranks, they have filtered through 45 signings in the past two years to find a squad capable of taking them on their best European run.

One of the free signings was Jovetic, and despite a forgetful spell in Manchester, he was a consistent forward during his time in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, although now he is more of a supplier than a finisher.

Jovetic playing for Manchester City in the 2013/14 season
Jovetic playing for Manchester City in the 2013/14 season

The man Jovetic is supporting is Ayoub El Kaabi, a relatively unknown forward, who had underwhelming spells in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and China before finding a home in Piraeus.

The Moroccan has scored five goals in six knockout matches so far, and since returning from Afcon has been in monstrous form.

He heads the attack, with Podence playing just off the right of him, and the Portuguese winger has almost outscored his entire four-season goal tally for Wolves in one campaign in Greece.

They are the stars of Mendilibar’s attack, who like Unai Emery prefers to mould his team in a way that will hamper his opponents rather than leaning on a laid-out philosophy.

And sometimes that approach has relied on moments of magic, including from 21-year-old goalkeeper Konstantinos Tzolakis who, much like Emiliano Martinez did for Villa, sent his side through to the semi-finals with a heroic penalty shootout performance.

Again, similarly to his Argentine counterpart, Tzolakis has had to wait for his moment to shine, saving three out of five spot-kicks to beat Fenerbahce in Turkey.

It is likely that he will be heavily involved at Villa Park, as Emery’s side will aim to try and give themselves as much control of the tie before they head to Karaiskakis Stadium for the second leg given his side will arrive into a cauldron of noise.

The tickets for the game sold out in a few hours, and for fans who missed the chance to get a seat, it is unlikely any match-going supporter will be giving up theirs.

Olympiacos fans have eagerly waited a lifetime for a moment like this to arrive and although they are going up against the wealth of a Premier League club, they have often proved they prefer it that way.