MOTHERWELL’S first foray into the Champions League ended in heartbreak after they were comprehensively beaten by Panathinaikos at the Olympic Stadium in Athens in the third qualifying round.
Well headed into tonight’s second leg as firm underdogs looking to overturn a two-goal deficit against their Greek opponents although they survived an early onslaught to go in goalless at the interval.
Yet Lazaros Christodoulopoulos and Charalampos Mavrias, both of whom scored in the first leg, put the tie beyond any reasonable doubt after half-time before Ibrahim Sissoko sealed an emphatic victory.
The Scottish side acquitted themselves well last week but were left with a mountain to climb with Panathinaikos scoring a soft early goal and a late second on the counter-attack.
Stuart McCall made two changes to the side that drew 0-0 against Ross County in the Clydesdale Bank Premier League opener as they sought to overturn the deficit tonight.
Wide-man Chris Humphrey suffered an injury at the weekend and was replaced by Adam Cummins while Henrik Ojamaa came in for Michael Higdon, who dropped to the bench.
Panathinaikos had not played a game since beating their opponents in Scotland eight days ago and fielded an unchanged line-up.
They looked to consolidate their advantage in the early running and Motherwell could have found themselves two further goals down in the first five minutes.
Jose Toche’s 25-yard strike forced goalkeeper Darren Randolph to parry away while the 29-year-old Spaniard should have done better moments later after going through on goal but he could only shoot wide of the right-hand post.
It was a let-off for the visitors but there was little respite as the Greek side continued to control the tempo of the match.
Toche was causing all sorts of problem in the Motherwell defence and went through on goal again but was thwarted by an offside flag before he could get his shot away.
Nicky Law nearly gave McCall’s men a glimmer of hope against the run of play but his fierce effort from just outside the area was pushed away by Pana keeper Orestis Karnezis.
It was a rare moment of attacking intent from the Steelmen, who started to force their way back into the contest.
But while they were seeing plenty of the ball, their opponents seemed content to sit on the back foot and Keith Lasley’s optimistic long-range strike that sailed over the bar was their only other sniff at goal before half-time.
Panathinaikos came out with the same attacking intent as they did at the start of the first half and only Simon Ramsden’s last-gasp clearance prevented Toche from heading home Sissoko’s cross.
But Motherwell’s luck was finally up as Christodoulopoulos put Panathinaikos ahead on the night and the tie seemingly beyond doubt.
There seemed to be little danger when Shaun Hutchinson fouled Sissoko 35 yards from goal but striker Christodoulopoulos, who also scored the opener at Fir Park, magnificently fired into the top corner and past a despairing Randolph in the 51st minute.
Not content to rest on their laurels, Panathinaikos continued to push forward and they had a claim for a penalty waved away despite the ball seemingly striking Cummins on the arm.
They nearly doubled their lead on the night but Toche was once again denied by Randolph, who magnificently saved the striker’s point-blank header.
The one-way traffic continued and it was another case of deja vu for Motherwell as Mavrias - scorer of Panathinaikos’ second goal last week - extended their lead on the night in the 75th minute by dribbling past the defence and comfortably shooting past Randolph.
Motherwell’s miserable night in the Greek capital was completed eight minutes later.
After they were dispossessed deep in Panathinaikos’ half, Kostas Katsouranis broke down the right for the hosts and his cross into the centre was slotted home by Sissoko.