There were numerous heroes for Panathinaikos as they defeated 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 Cisse, Ninis’ attacking accomplice, to describe him as “the future of Greek football”.
All three goals from the Greek side came in a six-minute spell at the end of the first half after John Arne Riise had given Roma an early lead. Ninis was at the heart of it all.
Tripped for Cisse’s goal from the penalty spot, he then drilled in his own from 20 metres before releasing the Frenchman to settle the contest before the break.
Daniele De Rossi’s 67th-minute tap-in ended the scoring while Kostas Katsouranis saw red late on.
Cisse, the scorer of the Greens’ late winner in Athens, had a glorious early chance but could only poke tamely wide after ghosting in to meet Ninis’s delicious centre.
The home side responded initially through Mirko Vucinic, who dribbled past four players before firing too close to Alexandros Tzorvas.
Then, on 11 minutes, a free-kick was touched to Riise and the Norwegian fired it in left-footed with the aid of a deflection.
Up on aggregate now, the home side appeared to relax and Panathinaikos took advantage in devastating fashion. First Cisse coolly slotted in a penalty after De Rossi had clipped Ninis.
Three minutes later the dangerous Ninis, 19, spun and shot brilliantly across Doni and into the far corner. With Roma stunned, the two scorers combined again as Ninis sent Cisse clear and the in-form No9 rounded Doni before finishing from a tight angle.
Roma laid siege. Tzorvas saved twice from Alessio Cerci before De Rossi brought brief hope by tapping in Riise’s saved effort for 3-2 on 67 minutes.
But, with three more goals needed, it was too little and the Greens marched to the next round, where they will face R. Standard de Liege.
“Of course it was a special occasion and I’m happy to have given a good account of myself,” said the 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.”
“Ninis is a fantastic player – he’s a real talent,” gushed Cisse. “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.”