Stuttgart’s rising stars down Panathinaikos

VIB Stuttgart took a giant stride toward the last 16 of the Champions League with a convincing 2-0 win over Panathinaikos Wednesday in front of a capacity 50,300 fans at the Gottlieb-Daimler Stadium. Stuttgart underlined their emergence in Europe’s premier competition with an historic 2-1 victory over Manchester United 21 days ago and continued where they left off to net all three points against a hapless Panathinaikos and join United, who defeated Glasgow Rangers 1-0, at the top of Group E on six points. «We have got used to playing in international football,» claimed Stuttgart coach Felix Magath. «Scoring the early goals really helped us and made it easier to control the game.» Stuttgart travel to Athens to face Panathinaikos on November 4 and Magath hopes his young charges can notch their first points away from home after a 2-1 reverse against Rangers. «Our next game is in Athens and I hope we can get something out of that match,» declared Magath. The Greek visitors came with the intention of stifling the midfield and playing on the counterattack but after just 13 minutes that game plan was scuppered with Hungarian striker Imre Szabics heading home an inch-perfect cross from Philipp Lahm. It was a deserved lead for the hosts who were dominating possession and leaving the green shirts to chase shadows for the first 20 minutes. With 25 minutes gone Stuttgart then doubled their lead through captain Zvonimir Soldo, who flicked home a Horst Heldt corner with the Panathinaikos defense stagnant. The 35-year-old Croat had been in doubt before the match with a calf injury but led from the front with his vast experience. A shell-shocked Panathinaikos took half an hour to register their first effort on target but goalkeeper Timo Hildebrand was never troubled by the tame shot from 25 yards. Stuttgart continued their energetic display in the second period, refusing to take their foot off the gas despite a two goal cushion. Brazilian defender Marcelo Bordon went close but saw his drilled shot go the wrong side of the post, while the excellent Lahm continued to wreak havoc down the left flank with his pace and close control. Panathinaikos pushed forward more as they looked to overturn their deficit, but could not break down a side that has conceded just one goal in nine Bundesliga matches. In contrast, the Greeks had conceded five in their opening Champions League outing against Manchester United. Felix Magath’s side strolled through the second half, with Hildebrand a bystander needing his gloves to keep him warm, and had the luxury of bringing on Greek striker Ioannis Amanatidis for a six-minute cameo against his compatriots. Stuttgart now have a two-point gap over Scottish champions Rangers after the three games played but face testing trips to Old Trafford – where Manchester United will be out for revenge – and Athens when Panathinaikos should be a different proposition. Panathinaikos on the other hand sit rock bottom of the group with a single point and have little hope of repeating their 2002 feat of reaching the quarterfinals. Qualification for the last 16 would be a major boost for the Stuttgart coffers with the club 16 million euros in debt and keen to hang on to their upcoming stars.