By Jonathan Caswell in Manchester
Manchester United FC began their UEFA Champions League campaign with an emphatic 5-0 victory at home against Panathinaikos FC at Old Trafford.
The result established Sir Alex Ferguson's side as the early pacesetters in Group E, and will leave them in good heart for their trip to face VfB Stuttgart in two weeks' time. Within seconds of the kick-off Ruud van Nistelrooij signalled United's intent, as he almost added to his impressive goalscoring record in the Champions League only to see his header fly just past the post.
The move proved to be an indication of the pattern of the opening period. Six minutes into the game, Ryan Giggs nearly linked up with Gary Neville on the edge of the penalty area, before United's early pressure told. Phil Neville's long-range shot forced a diving save from Panathinaikos goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis in the 12th minute, and from Giggs's resulting corner from the right, Mikaël Silvestre was on hand to force the ball into the net from close range.
Two minutes later it was 2-0, as Quinton Fortune capitalised on some uncertainty in the Panathinaikos defence to double United's lead with a well-struck left-footed shot from just inside the penalty area.
However, it was not all one-way traffic, with United goalkeeper Tim Howard called into action after 18 minutes to save Silvio Maric's shot before keeping out Michalis Konstantinou's audacious 25-metre lob moments later.
The away side came even closer to halving the deficit two minutes before the half-hour, as Maric's cross was met by Konstantinou who forced another spectacular stop from the American goalkeeper.
United came back strongly, however, and extended their lead in the 33rd minute. Fortune's pass found Giggs, who in turn fed Ole Gunnar Solskjær. The Norwegian striker's shot was straight at Nikopolidis, but the Greek goalkeeper allowed the ball to slip out of his grasp and roll into the net.
Butt on target
The home side further emphasised their superiority just before half-time as John O'Shea's left-wing cross was met by Nicky Butt, who headed a resounding fourth into the top right-hand corner of the net. Sir Alex Ferguson responded by immediately substituting Solskjær, with David Bellion coming on in his place.
Panathinaikos coach Itzhak Shum introduced substitute goalkeeper Konstantinos Chalkias at the interval in place of Nikopolidis. The early action of the second period, however, took place at the other end of the field, with defender Giourkas Seitardis producing a tricky run and cross that picked out Konstantinou, but the tall Cypriot striker's volley flew centimetres wide.
Two minutes past the hour, Shum made another change, replacing top scorer Dimitrios Papadopoulos with Polish international forward Emmanuel Olisadebe, but United were content to play out time while their Greek visitors struggled to create chances.
However, just as it seemed the home side had settled for four goals, they added a late fifth, substitute Eric Djemba-Djemba scoring his first goal for the club with seven minutes remaining. Darren Fletcher's cross was missed by Giggs, and the Cameroonian midfield player was left unmarked to send the ball into the roof of the net and complete an impressive first night's work for the English side.
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