Giroud gives Arsenal reason to dream
Something happened to Arsenal in Piraeus, one of those Sliding Doors moments which, barring an unwelcome reunion with Lionel Messi and Co next February, may just have set them on the path to something tangible, maybe even glorious, in the Champions League.
It was perhaps best illustrated by Olivier Giroud, two minutes into the second half, when the French centre-forward fell to the ground chasing a stray ball in Arsenal's right-back position.
Giroud clutched his right ankle, waved frantically to alert Arsenal's medical staff and, apparently, signal the end of his involvement after giving his team a crucial lead with a stunning first-half header.
But Giroud was revived, he gingerly climbed to his feet and, like a nine-year-old who attempts to draw attention to a heavy limp before sprinting off when he has forgotten he was supposed to be injured, darted towards the Olympiakos penalty area when the scent of another goal entered his nostrils.
Two minutes after what seemed a serious injury, Giroud had scored a second goal to put Arsenal on their way to a famous victory, capped off by the 29-year-old's hat-trick goal from the penalty spot.
When it mattered, Giroud stiffened his back and got on with the job, and so did the rest of Arsène Wenger's players.
In a hostile, intimidating Stadio Giorgios Karaiskakis, Giroud and his team-mates disproved once and for all those accusations of flakiness, the brittle confidence and lack of fight in the heat of battle. Who knows where they can go next?
Wenger described the victory as the "perfect performance", admitting at the same time that it was the "greatest escape", and the sense of crossing a Rubicon was shared by his players.
"I think it can lift our season, why not?" said Theo Walcott. "The amount of confidence in that dressing-room is spreading out to all the players."
Giroud was the totem, however, and it was appropriate that the man who missed a catalogue of chances in the last 16 first-leg defeat at home to Monaco last season, the same moody personality sent off for a reckless foul on the way to defeat in Zagreb in September, answered the call.
These are the performances which draw a line in the sand. Once crossed, there can be no going back to failings of the past.
Every team of any consequence in Europe has enjoyed that type of night - a night that becomes the reference point for future success.
The young faces from Manchester United's Class of '92 always cited the 3-2 Old Trafford victory against Juventus in 1997 as the result which banished their Champions League inferiority complex.
Rafael Benitez's Liverpool players were infused with self-belief, and a sense that their resilience could take them all the way, after Steven Gerrard's 86th-minute winner against Olympiakos at Anfield in December 2004 confirmed progression from the group stage and ultimately to glory in Istanbul.
Some may suggest that Olympiakos are nothing more than a Champions League also-ran, but Arsenal claimed a 3-0 victory in the same arena where United were humiliated 2-0 in February last year, so credit where credit is due.
The trick which Wenger must now perform is similar to the psychological ace he played in Piraeus, 24 hours before the Olympiakos game.
Wenger challenged his players to think positive and focus on the rewards of victory rather than the ramifications of defeat, and it worked spectacularly.
But the post-match observations of the likes of Giroud and Mathieu Flamini hinted at work still to be done in the minds of Arsenal's players.
"We want to go as far as we can," Giroud said, before allowing himself to set the somewhat modest target of a place in the last eight.
"The target is to maybe reach at least the quarter-finals. It's the fourth year I have been here and we have never played in a quarter-final."
If the secret of success is to aim for the stars in order to hit the ceiling, Giroud perhaps needs to raise his sights.
Flamini's concern about facing Barcelona in the last 16 also pointed to a continued lack of belief in the Champions League.
"We obviously don't want Barcelona as they are a top team," Flamini said. "But for the rest, we will see."
Barcelona, having twice eliminated Arsenal in the last 16, are obvious bogeymen and Wenger's team are not the only English club who would likely find their Champions League ambitions halted by the holders.
However, Arsenal discovered in Piraeus that fortune favours the brave and, after five successive last-16 eliminations, perhaps it is time for the swagger shown in Greece to be replicated against the very best.
Defensively, there remain flaws to be ironed out, but with the likes of Alexis Sanchez, Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, Danny Welbeck and Mikel Arteta all likely to be back in time for the next round, Arsenal possess the quality to hurt any opponent - even Barcelona.
The 2-0 victory against Bayern Munich at the Emirates, which proved so crucial in Arsenal's qualification from Group F, highlighted how destructive Wenger's players can be when they are at their best, Mesut Özil in particular.
"On our day, I believe we can beat anybody," said midfielder Aaron Ramsey. "Probably a lot of big teams will want to avoid us and we will give anybody a go.
"That sort of result (against Olympiakos) will give us a lot of confidence and belief going into the next few games in a busy period. And we're in the draw for the next round."
From the very real prospect of having only one competitor in the last 16, the Premier League will now boast three clubs among Europe's elite, with only United falling through the trapdoor to the Europa League.
Should Manchester City avoid being drawn against Paris Saint-Germain, they will be strongly fancied to see off the likes of PSV Eindhoven, Benfica, Dynamo Kiev or Ghent and make it into the quarter-finals for the first time.
Chelsea, similarly, will be confident of progression, with their possible opponents - PSG, PSV, Benfica, Juventus, Roma and Ghent - all lacking the formidable strength of Barça or Bayern.
The route to the business end of the competition is more hazardous for Arsenal, but if they steer clear of Barça, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, Wenger would expect his team to overcome Wolfsburg or Zenit St Petersburg.
A favourable draw and perhaps Arsenal can truly target a return to the final for the first time since losing to Barcelona in Paris in 2006.
"We had the chance to prove to everyone we have the qualities of being a top team in the Champions League against Olympiakos and we did it, playing some good football," Flamini said.
"We played Monaco last year and we thought it would maybe be a bit easier and it was not the case so whoever we play, we will give 100pc. But Olympiakos was a good performance and we showed great team spirit."
All Arsenal need now is some luck in the draw on Monday and the belief that they really can compete in the Champions League.
Independent News Service