By Paris Ayiomamatis at the Apostolos Nikolaidis
Manchester United FC will play VfB Stuttgart on Matchday 6 to decide the winners of Group E after defeating Panathinaikos FC 1-0 in Athens, Diego Forlán scoring late on. While United celebrate a place in the last 16, the Greek side are left to ponder their worst European campaign in recent memory.
UEFA Cup hope
All is not lost for Panathinaikos, though, as they will now play Rangers FC - beaten 1-0 at Stuttgart - for a place in the UEFA Cup. The home side were given hope ahead of the match by the exclusion of Ruud van Nistelrooij, Sir Alex Ferguson resting his prolific Dutchman with Forlán playing as a lone striker and Ryan Giggs providing support. In the absence of Roy Keane, Kleberson and Nicky Butt shared the central midfield duties.
Against United's 4-5-1 formation, Panathinaikos coach Itzhak Shum fielded a 4-4-2 system with Cypriot international Michalis Konstantinou and Dimitrios Papadopoulos the spearheads. The strikers had little service in a first half in which both sides played with caution, meaning space was at a premium. While United struggled to get their trademark passing game into motion, Panathinaikos rarely looked like troubling the visiting defence, with Giourkas Seitaridis, a right-back, the star performer.
The first incisive passage of play was 32 minutes in coming. The travelling support rose to their feet when Cristiano Ronaldo broke down the right, only for the Portuguese youngster's low cross to evade Kleberson due to excessive pace. When United did threaten, Greek international Giannis Goumas was at his best in marshalling the Panathinaikos defence; it was a different story from Matchday 1, when United scored four times in the first half at Old Trafford.
Forlán, a different player this season due to a flurry of goals, had his first real glimpse of goal in the 42nd minute when latching on to a Giggs pass, only to shoot weakly into the arms of Antonios Nikopolidis. The start of the second half followed a similar pattern, as skill rarely matched endeavour. The half-time introduction of Joël Epallé for Lucian Sanmartean at least gave Panathinaikos some added spark, though.
The Cameroon forward was presented with his side's best chance of the opening hour in the 58th minute, although Epallé's shot was straight at American goalkeeper Tim Howard. Four minutes later Giggs was at his best, running down the left at pace and beating three defenders before cutting the ball back to Forlán whose instinctive left-foot shot fizzed fractionally wide of Nikopolidis's left-hand post. It was the closest either side had come to a goal.
Upped the pace
By now United had upped the pace and were dominant in midfield, with Giggs increasingly influential. Sir Alex added extra skill and speed to his side by introducing French youngster David Bellion for Scottish international Darren Fletcher and the first attack following that change almost brought an end to the deadlock. Bellion was not involved, though, as brilliant work from Kleberson gave Forlán another sight of goal, which was again wasted.
Forlán wins it
Yet United are nothing if not persistent and Forlán eventually decided the game - and Panathinakos's Champions League fate - with five minutes remaining in Athens. Blond hair flowing, the Uruguayan sent United into the knockout stages by firing the ball beyond Nikopolidis after good approach play from Bellion. Sir Alex looked a happy man.