La Liga

Rossi to the rescue for Villarreal

Villarreal CF preserved their proud unbeaten record at El Madrigal in the UEFA Champions League but surrendered a crucial away goal in drawing with Panathinaikos FC.

The result of this first knockout round first-leg tie could have been worse for the Spanish team, however, as they wasted a number of opportunities while continuing this season’s statistic of conceding over a goal a game in Europe. After controlling much of the play, the Yellow Submarine fell behind to a superb long-range strike from Giorgos Karagounis, before Robert Pirès was tripped for a penalty converted by Giuseppe Rossi.

With the Greek visitors fulfilling pre-match predictions by lining up with five at the back, the home side set their pattern early. Pushing high up the pitch as often as possible, they profited from Santi Cazorla and Ariel Ibagaza exchanging quick passes and buzzing at the Panathinaikos defence. It almost brought a goal when the two enabled Ángel López to send Joseba Llorente sprinting into the box but Mario Galinović made a fine stop with his legs.

Despite dominating possession and creativity, Villarreal almost suffered a 13th-minute shock. Sole striker Vangelis Mantzios spun away from his marker to back-heel Karagounis’s corner narrowly over. At the other end Rossi was the key player, but Galinović easily held his firm free-kick five minutes later. Undismayed, Rossi produced a moment’s brilliance. His clever dummy of Bruno’s pass invited Llorente to flick the ball past three defenders and on for the Italian, who was only stopped from scoring by a world-class sliding tackle from Loukas Vintra. With Villarreal flying, Ibagaza curved in a free-kick which Galinović flapped at but Sebastián Eguren headed a clear chance past the junction of bar and post.

Token Panathinaikos resistance came from Karagounis warming the gloves of Diego López, before Galinović prevented the opening goal arriving just before the break. Rossi and Ibagaza played a 30-metre one-two which resulted in the former volleying from point-blank range; the Croatian keeper made a remarkable stop. Almost immediately the same tormentors in yellow combined for Ibagaza’s raking shot to skid a hair’s-breadth past the far post.

The Greens reacted by substituting Giannis Goumas, whose booking earned a second-leg suspension, and deploying the wing-backs higher up the field. Their reward came when Ibagaza was caught in possession and a rapid move spearheaded by Simão and featuring a Mantzios dummy, finished with Karagounis cracking a drive into the top-right corner. The setback brought a response – Pirès and Nihat Kahveci replacing Eguren and Llorente. Within four minutes Jakub Wawrzyniak stuck out a leg and conceded a penalty for a trip on the Frenchman. Rossi was coolness itself in sending Galinović the wrong way for 1-1.

The equaliser was the invitation for Villarreal to lay siege to the Panathinaikos goal in the dying moments. Nihat shot centimetres wide from distance, then a powerful Rossi header almost put the seal on the forward’s excellent, if ultimately frustrating, night.