When Arsenal arrive at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens on Thursday evening, it will represent the biggest game of the season for their opponents, Olympiacos.
The knockout stages of the Europa League are always a huge occasion for the Greek club. But considering what is going on in their domestic competition, the fixture also acts as a pleasant distraction.
That is because Olympiacos are currently embroiled in a bitter dispute with rivals PAOK which, even judged by the country’s high bar when it comes to footballing controversy, has caused quite a stir.
The traditional powerhouse of Greek football are currently top of the Super League, two points clear of PAOK, who followed AEK Athens’ lead in breaking their dominance to win last year’s title.
But Olympiacos, who are owned by shipping magnate and Nottingham Forest supremo Evangelos Marinakis, have not taken PAOK’s challenge lying down.
Marinakis alleged that the owner of the Thessaloniki-based club, Ivan Savvidis, had acquired a stake in mid-table club Xanthi in 2018 via a family member – a move that is strictly prohibited for its potential to allow the competition to be manipulated.
The explosive claim was denied by Savvidis and PAOK, who accused their rivals of a “set-up”. That, however, only inflamed the situation between the rival businessmen.
The influence of the two powerful men, their connections to politics and the importance of football in the country means that the issue has gone all the way to the top, with prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis forced to step in.
Keen to act but weary of enraging Savvidis and voters in northern Greece who support PAOK, Mitsotakis’ government amended the law on multiple ownership this month, replacing the relegation which would have befallen PAOK and Xanthi with a points deduction.
But, with just two league games remaining this season, any penalty enacted against PAOK would effectively hand the league title to Olympiacos, who travel to Thessaloniki for what is sure to be a fiery occasion on Sunday.
Savvidis won’t be in attendance, however, having been handed a three-year stadium ban for storming on to the pitch when armed with a gun to protest against a disallowed goal against AEK Athens in March 2018.
The ownership dispute is just the latest of many incidents to grip Greek football and, after crowd disorder, rioting, allegations of match-fixing – Marinakis was cleared of the latter in 2018 – and corruption, Mitsotakis is attempting to take a stand.
Having discussed the issue in parliament last month, the premier has invited Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin and Fifa vice president Greg Clarke to Athens next week in order to help “reshape Greek football”.
“It’s better not to have a championship at all than to have such a championship,” Mitsotakis said.
Chaos is nothing new in Greek football, and Mitsotakis will no doubt encounter resistance to proposed changes but, with the landscape potentially shifting, Olympiacos will want to make hay while the sun shines.
If they can avoid a similar fate to when they last hosted Arsenal in Athens – a 3-0 defeat in the 2015-16 Champions League group stages, courtesy of an Olivier Giroud hat-trick – then the ongoing furore might stop being the hottest talking point in town.