By Paris Ayiomamitis at the Apostolos Nikolaidis
VfB Stuttgart came from behind to earn a thrilling 3-1 victory at Panathinaikos FC to confirm their status as joint-favourites to advance into the UEFA Champions League knockout stage from Group E along with Manchester United FC.
Second-half strikes from Andreas Hinkel, Kevin Kuranyi and an own goal by Panagiotis Fyssas - all in the space of ten minutes - were enough to cancel out a wonderful effort from Michalis Konstantinou and end Panathinaikos's chances of reaching the last 16.
Early Greek pressure
Panathinaikos enjoyed most of the possession in the opening stages but were frustrated by a tightly packed visiting defence. However, eager to get an early goal, Panathinaikos gradually took control of midfield after ten minutes and their fluid play began to trouble Stuttgart.
The home side came close on 12 minutes but Cypriot international Konstantinou was unable to connect with a deep cross from Fyssas. Stuttgart bit back a minute later and Pananthinaikos had Giannis Goumas to thank for heading the ball clear before Kuranyi was able to connect in the penalty box.
Stuttgart goalkeeper and captain Timo Hildebrand denied the Greek side on 16 minutes after doing well to parry a well-struck shot from Angelos Basinas as, buoyed by the excellent Konstantinou in attack, Panathinaikos showed surprising form to the delight of the home crowd.
Panathinaikos go close
They had the first big chance of the match on 20 minutes after a clever back-heel from Konstantinou darted across the goalmouth but Silvio Maric and Fyssas were unable to nudge the ball past a beaten Hildebrand. Konstantinou was there again a minute later but his diving header went over the crossbar.
Croatian midfield player Maric almost got his name on the scoresheet on 26 minutes but his shot narrowly curled over Hildebrand's crossbar as the hosts continued to mount attack after attack. Doubling up front with Konstantinou, Dimitrios Papadopoulos also began to assert himself and came close on 27 minutes when he broke free from midfield only to see his shot go agonisingly wide. Stuttgart increased their ball possession in the dying stages of the half but Panathinaikos remained in control as the interval arrived.
More Greek pressure
There was no let-up after the break as Panathinaikos pushed men forward, while Stuttgart defended passionately. The Greek team came close on 53 minutes after Papadopoulos's shot just fizzed over Hildebrand's bar. And two minutes later Konstantinou's excellent shot inside the area was blocked by the well-positioned German goalkeeper.
Panathinaikos finally broke the deadlock on the hour after Konstantinou rifled a shot into the net to put his name on the Champions League scoresheet for the first time this season. However, their joy was shortlived as Stuttgart levelled the scores on 67 minutes as Fyssas turned Kuranyi's cross into his own goal.
Stuttgart looked increasingly dangerous as they sought to capitalise on Panathinaikos's confusion and it was not long before Kuranyi silenced the home crowd with an excellent shot 15 minutes before time. The match was then put beyond the home side's reach a minute later when Hinkel threaded through the Panathinaikos defence to slot the ball past Antonios Nikopolidis and cap a memorable comeback.