Ariel Ibagaza scored one and set up a decisive second for substitute Joseba Llorente as Villarreal earned a hard-fought victory against Panathinaikos in Athens to secure a place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals.
Manuel Pellegrini’s side reached the last four on their competition debut in 2005/06 and remain on course to emulate that despite going into tonight with a minor disadvantage having conceded an away goal in the 1-1 first-leg draw. Ibagaza ensured that would not prove telling when he broke the deadlock with a venomous strike soon after half-time and, though Vangelis Mantzios swiftly equalised, Llorente rounded off an Ibagaza-led counterattack with 20 minutes left to seal Villarreal’s place in next Friday’s draw.
Panathinaikos coach Henk ten Cate had insisted passion and desire would be needed in abundance and there was plenty of both on display in the opening exchanges. Mantzios, back in the side for the first time since straining a knee ligament in the sides’ encounter a fortnight ago, showed glimpses of skill with a couple of neat twists and turns as the hosts dominated without ever really penetrating the visitors’ back line. Instead it was Villarreal who registered the first shot on target through Nihat Kahveci, but the Turkish striker’s reflex effort was easily gathered by Mario Galinović.
Giuseppe Rossi and Nihat then had shots blocked as the Yellow Submarine began to punch holes in the hosts’ rearguard before Panathinaikos responded through Gabriel, who prodded over the crossbar from Dimitris Salpingidis’s low cross on the half-hour. Giorgos Karagounis did succeed in warming Diego López’s gloves from a free-kick moments later and, as the two teams began to emerge from their defensive shells, the intensity was cranked up. Ibagaza had an effort ruled out for handball before the chance of the half fell at the other end on 34 minutes, Mantzios running on to Simão’s sublime pass and sliding a left-footed shot towards the far post that was brilliantly saved by López.
Llorente replaced the ineffective Nihat at half-time for Villarreal, but four minutes after the restart it was Ibagaza who stunned OACA Spiros Louis Stadium with a sumptuous strike. The 30-year-old rounded off a flowing move involving Rossi and Joan Capdevila, beating Galinović with a first-time strike which flew into the top left corner. Panathinaikos responded well, winning a series of corners, and six minutes later they were level when Mantzios rose almost unopposed to power Karagounis’ corner past López.
It was the striker’s fourth goal in six UEFA Champions League appearances and prompted a seismic eruption among the sell-out crowd, but their joy was to prove short-lived. With 70 minutes on the clock Villarreal broke quickly on a three-on-three, Ibagaza advancing and feeding Llorente who took an exquisite touch and drilled in. Now needing to score twice, there was no way back for the home side.