Panathinaikos exits Europe with thrashing

Werder Bremen crushed Panathinaikos 5-1 on Wednesday night to qualify for the knockout phase of the Champions League as Barcelona did them a huge favor by beating Udinese in the other Group C match. Bremen finished second behind the Spaniards, who scored twice in the last five minutes to open the door for Bremen, who would have missed out if Udinese had held on. Bremen and Udinese ended level on seven points but the Germans advanced thanks to their better head-to-head record. For Panathinaikos, with only four points from six matches, the game marked the end of European competition for the season. They must now turn their attention to the Greek league and their seven-point deficit to leaders Olympiakos Piraeus. Bremen, meanwhile, can look forward to the knockout round draw on December 16. The result sent shockwaves through the Greek club, the country’s most consistent and reliable Champions League performer. It appears that Italian coach Alberto Malesani’s term at Panathinaikos is set to end. Reports said that Malesani, who was summoned to a meeting by club boss Yiannis Vardinoyiannis yesterday afternoon, would stay until a replacement is found, most likely during the Greek league’s 20-day break over the festive season. Panathinaikos has waited to make coaching changes this time of the year in the past. Until late yesterday, neither Vardinoyiannis nor Malesani had made any comments. Despite growing discontent expressed by club fans, Vardinoyiannis has adamantly supported Malesani. But this appears to have changed following Wednesday night’s 5-1 thrashing in Germany. Malesani’s post-match remarks, during which he attributed the heavy loss to individual errors while saying that six of his players performed very well, has apparently troubled club officials. At the rival camp, Werder Bremen coach Thomas Schaaf extended his contract by two years until June 2008, the club announced a day after its triumph. Schaaf, who has been at the helm since May 1999, has taken Bremen to a German league title in 2003-04 and two German Cup victories. «I think I have made the right decision as I have freedom to work here,» said Schaaf. Returning to Wednesday’s game, a Johan Micoud penalty, a double strike from Paraguayan Nelson Valdez, a sharp run and shot by Miroslav Klose and an injury-time effort from Torsten Frings did the damage, but the biggest cheers came when Barcelona’s late goals were flashed up on the stadium screen. «The pressure fell from us at that point. But we played really well and deserved to go into the last 16,» said Frings. Schaaf and his players were aware they had a huge task on their hands after losing their first two games and picking up only a point at Udinese. «We were lucky. We knew that we had to do what we could here and then hope,» said Klose. Klose added that the players had been aware that things were not going their way in Italy because their fans remained quiet. Bremen made a dream start when Panathinaikos keeper Mario Galinovic brought down Klose inside a minute and Micoud slotted in the penalty. Klose, playing in a mask after breaking a bone in his face in Bremen’s 3-1 loss at Barcelona last month, proved a handful for the visitors, who barely posed a threat. Valdez was another scourge of the Greek side’s defense, scoring after a free kick had been knocked down and racing onto a through ball three minutes later. French midfielder Micoud was the provider on both occasions. The visitors appeared to have given up hope by halftime. Bremen were leading 3-0 just past the half-hour mark. Klose’s effort in the 51st minute, when he fended off of a defender and shot past Galinovic, was the pick of the goals, vindicating his selection two weeks after his very bloody injury. «He deserves all the praise after an injury like that a fortnight ago. He has rewarded himself with such a fine game,» said Schaaf, who added he would let his players have «one glass» by way of celebration. Nasief Morris’s headed goal from a corner in the 53rd minute was no more than a consolation for the visitors. Coming two minutes after Bremen had gone 4-0 up it was more a reflection of the home side’s lack of concentration than any attempt at a comeback. Following Group C’s other game, Udinese coach Serse Cosmi said his side had gone out with their heads held high after the two goals in the last five minutes from Barcelona eliminated the Italians from the Champions League. A goalless draw would have been enough to book Udinese, in their first Champions League campaign, a place in the last 16 of the competition. «It was the game of our life and for a game like that you need to be at your maximum – and we weren’t,» said Cosmi. «That was our destiny and we go out with our heads held high. It is a big blow but it has been an extraordinary experience for us.» With the game heading for a goalless draw, Santi Ezquerro struck in the 85th minute after a goalmouth scramble and then set up substitute Andres Iniesta for the second goal in the final minute. (Reuters, Kathimerini, AFP)