For a few worrying minutes it looked like Arsenal were going to crumble in the city famous for its ancient Greek ruins.
But, as Mikel Arteta demanded his Arsenal side stood up to be counted against Olympiacos, to claim a result that gives them a firm foundation to build their bid to reach the last 16 on.
Arteta is slowly restoring a side whose season was on the verge of collapse under Unai Emery. He has instilled a resilience into Arsenal again and there were more signs of that here as they overcame a shaky start to leave the Greek capital victorious, thanks to Alexandre Lacazette’s late winner.
Alexandre Lacazette’s 81st minute goal saw Arsenal beat Olympiacos 1-0 in Athens
Lacazette tapped home Bukayo Saka’s left-wing cross inside the six-yard box to seal victory
Lacazette enjoyed an animated celebration with his Arsenal team-mates after scoring
In days gone by their shaky start in the Greek capital would have been the prelude for an Arsenal collapse. Not anymore.
Composure was regained, with Arsenal answering Arteta’s call for character and not to go hiding in an intimidating atmosphere, control of the game slowly seized and a crucial last-32, first-leg victory eventually secured.
Alexandre Lacazette was the 81st minute match winner, his goal drought well and truly over with the Frenchman scoring for the second game running after ending his two-month dry spell against Newcastle.
Once again, though, Arsenal were indebted to their exciting youngster Bukayo Saka.
The youngest player on the pitch had the coolest head and delivered the inch-perfect cross for Lacazette to take his assists tally to nine this season, more than any other Arsenal player.
The goalless draw Arsenal were heading for would have been a creditable enough result to take into next week’s second leg at the Emirates.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos was a surprise selection at right-back on his return to Greece
Mathieu Valbuena forced Bernd Leno into two diving saves in the first half and second half
MATCH FACTS AND PLAYER RATINGS
OLYMPIACOS (4-3-2-1): José Sa 6; Elabdellaoui 6, Ruben Semedo 7, Ba 7, Tsimikas 7, Bouchalakis 6 (Fortounis 65, 6), Camara 6, Guilherme 6; Masouras 6.5 (Lovera 75, 6), Valbuena 7; El Arabi 6.5.
Subs not used: Allain, Papadopoulos, Cisse, Boialvo Gaspar, Randjelovic.
Booked: El Arabi, Semedo, Bouchalakis, Ba
Manager: Pedro Martins 6
ARSENAL: Leno 7.5; Sokratis 6 (Maitland-Niles 90), Luiz 6, Mustafi 7, Saka 7.5; Guendouzi 7, Xhaka 6; Martinelli 6.5 (Ceballos 58, 6), Willock 7 (Pepe 75, 6), Aubameyang 6.5; Lacazette 7.
Subs not used: Martinez, Holding, Kolasinac, Nketiah.
Goals: Lacazette 81
Booked: Mustafi, Xhaka
Manager: Mikel Arteta 8
Referee: Felix Zwayer 7.5
Man of the match: Bernd Leno
Lacazette’s late goal to top off Arsenal’s mature performance and a third successive clean sheet made it a European managerial debut to remember for Arteta, whose side remain unbeaten this year.
He said: ‘It’s tough to come to a stadium like this away in Europe and come away with a win. ‘The first 10, 15 minutes we suffered because we did not do the things that we talked about and the execution on the simple things was poor.
‘We tell them they have to enjoy defending as well, it is a big part of the game and like tonight if you give simple balls way you better run back and get that ball back as quickly as possible. But they play with a big heart.
‘It’ll be a different game at the Emirates, obviously scoring away from home is very positive but the tie is completely open.’
Reserving special praise for 18 year-old Saka, Arteta said: ‘I’m really pleased (with) the way he’s developed.
‘I think he’s really pleased the way he’s handling this situation because there’s a lot of highlights on him at the moment but he’s really humble.
‘He’s always asking questions, meeting with my assistants and willing to improve. He’s a great kid and he’s very brave.
‘He makes big decisions in the final third, he doesn’t hide and he’s got the vision and the ability to execute in spaces that are really tight which is a big gift.’
Arteta hinted at picking a strong team in Greece, Arsenal having only just returned from their two week break.
Lacazette spurned a brilliant chance to take the lead when he fired wide on 20 minutes
David Luiz strode out of defence and played in Saka to supply the assist for Lacazette’s goal
Lacazette’s close range finish mean the Frenchman now has two goals in his last two games
He made five changes but remained true to his word, handing first-choice goalkeeper Bernd Leno his first Europa League appearance this season, starting his three most senior defenders and reuniting Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in his attacking setup.
Sokratis Papastathopoulos, a surprise pick at right-back on his return to his homeland, had warned about the tense atmosphere when Olympiacos play at home and by kick off the ground was jumping.
Two early chances gave the home fans further encouragement, Mathieu Valbuena forcing a diving save from Leno before Giorgos Masouras headed over from inside the six yard box.
It was easy to see why they were such awkward Champions League opponents for Tottenham, drawing here and losing in London but having initially given Arsenal’s biggest rivals a major scare by racing into a 2-0 lead.
A couple of brief flashes from Aubameyang and Gabriel Martinelli suggested there was joy to be had for Arsenal.
That sense only grew in the 20th minute when Lacazette fired Martinelli’s cutback at the end of a slick move the French striker was involved in three times.
Arsenal’s growing confidence was almost dented by a David Luiz own goal, the Brazilian relieved when he saw Leno had stayed big enough to prevent his touch on Masouras’s cross ending up in his own net.
The win was arguably the most impressive of Mikel Arteta’s rein as Arsenal showed their mettle
Arteta will be encouraged by his side’s temperament amid a raucous atmosphere in Athens
Olympiacos’s goalkeeper Jose Sa was equally grateful when Martinelli unintentionally redirected Granit Xhaka’s free-kick. It was heading for Sa’s bottom corner until Martinelli’s touch took it straight into his arms.
Arsenal were comfortable heading into the break after weathering Olympiacos’s early storm, the hosts unable to maintain the intensity they started with.
Luiz had two attempts at the start of the second half one from a free-kick and the second when he ignored a simple pass to the overlapping Saka to shoot wastefully wide.
With the game remaining in the balance, Olympiacos found a second wind and their fans their voices again. Valbuena and Kostas Fortounis threatened Leno’s goal from distance and, heading into the final 10 minutes, a winner was impossible to call.
It proved to be Arsenal after Shkodran Mustafi swept the ball out to the left, Aubmeyang slipped it back to Saka and his curled cross combined with Lacazette’s excellent movement created a tap in for Arsenal’s No.9.
Arsenal’s first-leg advantage could have got even better. Lacazette was denied by Sa before Sokratis, who later appeared to be confronted by an angry supporter after he limped off injured, headed against the bar.
But the one-winning goal represented a more than satisfactory outcome.