Motherwell had promised to give it a real go in the return match of their Champions League qualifying tie with Panathinaikos as they sought to overturn two-goal, first-leg deficit but never really threatened to bring about an upset throughout the 90 minutes.
Their exit was as tame as it was predictable. Stuart McCall's side kept it tight until the interval – enjoying the bulk of possession in the first half – but tired visibly after the break and conceded three times to slump to an aggregate 5-0 defeat. It is now three games into the new season and they are yet to register a goal.
An air of deja vu surrounded the first two goals they lost. Just as at Fir Park the previous week, the first arrived from a free-kick conceded by Shaun Hutchinson, sumptuously converted by Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, while the second was scored by Charis Mavrias who, again, netted not long after arriving as a substitute. A third by Ibrahim Sissoko ended the symmetry and piled on the agony for a Motherwell side now toiling and happy to hear the final whistle.
There was little shame in a club of Motherwell's standing losing to a side of Panathinakos' quality, even if the scoreline does little to enhance Scottish football's reputation.
Motherwell now join Hearts and possibly also Dundee United in tomorrow's draw for the play-off round of the Europa League. Victory at that juncture over two legs would guarantee them European football until Christmas, although as an unseeded side they will almost certainly face opposition of superior pedigree; the likes of Internazionale, Liverpool, and Olympique Marseille are among those who lie in wait.
If this is to be their only taste of Champions League football then at least Motherwell got to experience one of European football's most spectacular venues. The cavernous, 75,000-capacity Olympic Stadium in Athens, with its suspended arch roof and running track around the perimeter of the pitch, was less than a third full last night but those in attendance –including around 550 travelling fans – still made a decent racket, even if there was precious little to get excited about until the second half.
Motherwell required two goals just to take the tie to extra-time but McCall's line-up was cautious. He switched to a three-man defence – with 19-year-old Adam Cummins given only his second competitive appearance – dropped Michael Higdon to the bench and asked Henrik Ojamaa to operate as the lone striker. The changes helped stifle Panathinaikos' creativity but also denied Motherwell the option of using Higdon's height and physique to go more direct whenever they needed to clear their lines in a hurry.
The pace of the game was understandably slow. On a wide pitch and with the temperature still over 30˚C when the match kicked off at 9.45pm local time, both teams wisely decided to conserve their energy. It soon became a tactical battle, Motherwell trying to patiently probe their way through the Panathinaikos defence with the Greeks, protecting their two-goal advantage, happy to play largely on the counter attack.
Motherwell had realised their manager's wish by surviving the early stages without falling further behind but only just. Toche, Panathinaikos' Spanish striker, was presented with two glorious chances to put the tie to bed in the opening three minutes but his first shot was tame and straight at Darren Randolph before he then swiped an even better opening wide of the post. He should have scored the second one and at least had the decency to look somewhat sheepish afterwards.
Having survived that scare, Motherwell steadied themselves and tried to gain a foothold in the contest. They did so but without really threatening the Panathinaikos goal until the 28th minute when Keith Lasley's fierce drive was well parried by Orestis Karnezis. Omar Daley had another decent chance late in the first half but could only take a fresh-air swipe at an inviting cross and the opportunity was wasted.
Optimism was rising come half-time but was soon extinguished when Panathinaikos went ahead after 50 minutes. It was a free-kick from Christodoulopoulos just outside the penalty box that again did the damage, the forward sweeping in a sweet shot that left Randolph clawing at thin air. If the goalkeeper had been partially at fault for the first goal conceded the previous week then he was completely blameless here, beaten by a fantastic strike that nestled in the top corner of the net.
It was a goal that again demonstrated the gulf in quality between the sides, with Panathinaikos noticeably going up a gear at the start of the second half. Minutes later and only a fantastic stop from Randolph from a Toche header prevented the Greeks from extending their advantage.
More goals were on the way, however. Mavrias again enhanced his reputation with a wonderful solo goal, dribbling through a tiring Motherwell defence to finish beyond Randolph before Sissoko cut inside to add a third. Panathinaikos could have added more but a combination of poor finishing and good goalkeeping spared Motherwell further misery. They had suffered enough by then.
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