WELL, it was nice while it lasted. Which was the summer, rather than any part of their first ever Champions League encounter.
Scorers: Panathinaikos - Christodoulopoulos (13), Mavrias (76)
A horribly cheap goal conceded directly from a free-kick after 13 minutes had Motherwell struggling to make any impression on their third round qualifying tie, with a late goal by Charis Mavrias ensuring that the return leg in Athens next week will be entirely academic. Whatever the one-eyed optimists in the Motherwell camp might say.
Yet those who see it as their sworn duty to act as footballing Grim Reapers when it comes to the Scottish game might initially have felt the need to chomp down on their scythes if attending Fir Park last night. On the day that a new top-flight deal was agreed with Sky – to everyone’s great surprise, not – Motherwell’s stadium was awash with noise and colour. For 12 minutes, anyway.
The 9,035 crowd, who had parted with £30 for tickets, seemed determined to derive full value from watching their club in Europe’s premier football tournament for the first time. For the brief period they remained in contention for the next round. Which is why they ensured they went nuts for the teams’ arrival on to the pitch. There was razzmattaz to accompany that moment too. A claret and amber mosaic was created by placard-waving supporters in the east stand. Who needs expensive Olympic opening ceremonies when you can pick up shiny paper at the local art shop?
The same supporters doing the waving might have wanted to cover their eyes with the same squares at the cringe-worthy goal lost by their team that seemed to put them out of a tie that had barely got underway. A free-kick near the left touchline about 30 yards out spelled disaster, though not in the usual way. Debutant Ibrahim Sissoko scored with it by doing no more than lofting it over the Motherwell defensive wall. Goalkeeper Darren Randolph was foxed by the flight of it after Jean-Alain Boumsong ran across his line but stopped short of making contact, the result being the ball drifting in at his far post.
It was an utterly-preventable goal that gave Panathinaikos all that they would have desired from an encounter that was supposed to contain all manner of pitfalls for them. They arrived without their former captain and Greek national mainstay Giorgos Karagounis, on his way out of the club after a contract dispute, and four new members of the starting line-up. They have even had pre-season games in which to bed in. It was impossible not to see some hope for McCall’s men either in the Athens club’s recent flirtation with bankruptcy and reports that the squad have not been paid their full wages for nine months.
However, the fact that winning the tie was absolutely crucial to the short-term well-being of Greek’s most successful club might have actually have counted against Motherwell. Home nerves probably didn’t help either. These were evident not just in Randolph’s unfortunate involvement. Keith Lasley seemed to suffer too when he squandered a glorious chance as Motherwell sought to engineer a quick response. Chris Humphrey was unlucky to see a powerful longe-range drive whistle just over the crossbar before Sissoko’s goal and Michael Higdon failed to capiitalise on a free header he sent tamely towards Orestis Karnezis.
Panathinaikos in the present day may not bear comparison to team that claimed a double only two years ago and made the last 16 of the Champions League a year earlier, but they were slicker and more menacing than their Scottish hosts, who toiled manfully. Indeed, they had a renewed vigour in the early stages of the second period, after the first had ended with Randolph tipping over a ferocious 30-yarder by Zeca. The crowd rediscovered their voice and their roars seemed to transmit to the men in claret, Karnezis almost letting a low drive by Nicky Law dribble away from him before gathering at a third attempt.
Jessaldo Ferriera’s side understandably began to compress in their own half as the second period wore on. It meant a little more space for Motherwell wide men Humphreys and Jamie Murphy opening up, but former Rangers defender Jean-Alain Boumsong and new partner Jose Manual Velazquez dealt comfortably with whatever crosses found their way into the middle.
Seasoned Motherwell watchers feared their team being diminished by the departures of Steve Jennings and Tim Clancy, but the shortcomings for McCall’s side were across the board. To their immenses credit, that was recognised by the Greek chorus, if you will, of flag-waving, ever-exuberant fans in the far corner of the east stand who took to chanting “Champions League, we’re having a laugh” midway through the period.
Motherwell: Randolph; Hateley, Ramsden, Hutchison, Hammell; Humphrey, Lasley, Law, Murphy; Higdon, Ojamaa (Daley 78). Subs not used: Hollis, McHugh, Carswell, Francis-Angol, Hetherington, Cummins.
Panathinaikos: Karnezis; Vyntra, Boumsong, Velazquez, Spyropoulos, Zeca, Marinos (Katsouranis 67), Vitolo, Sissoko, Touche (Mavris 74), Christodoulopoulos (Fornaroli 84). Subs not used: Kotsolis, Seitardis, Petropoulous, Fourlanos.