Panathinaikos FC coach Henk Ten Cate enjoyed a 54th birthday to remember as his revitalised team clinched a place in the UEFA Champions League knockout stage for the first time in seven years and brought Anorthosis Famagusta FC's remarkable European campaign to an end.
A second-half strike from Giorgos Karagounis was enough to seal a remarkable turnaround for the Greek side who, with FC Internazionale Milano FC succumbing 2-1 at Werder Bremen, advanced to the last 16 as Group B winners despite losing their first two games. Bremen's victory meant the German club pipped Anorthosis to third position and a UEFA Cup berth, leaving the Cypriot champions to reflect on a brave debut in the group stage and rue a goalkeeping error from impressive substitute goalkeeper Zóltan Nagy in Athens.
Requiring simply to avoid defeat to progress, Ten Cate's team resisted the dangerous temptation to sit back, instead throwing caution to the wind in the early stages. They could have been ahead after two minutes when Alexandros Tziolis headed Loukas Vintra's inviting cross over the bar, and four minutes later Karagounis was only denied a goal by a superb one-handed save from Anorthosis No1 Arian Beqaj after unleashing a typically threatening free-kick. The visitors showed their own menace on the counterattack, however, and Hawar Taher missed a golden chance to score, slicing Vincent Laban's low cross high and wide from close range.
A goal was clearly needed to ease the palpable tension among the Greens and their audibly nervous home support but Temuri Ketsbaia's determined side continued to repel the attacking threat. Vangelis Mantzios was frustrated twice, first by Andreas Constantinou's block and then by another save from Beqaj, the latter demonstrating his importance to Anorthosis after a month on the sidelines. Karagounis also went close before the interval, finding only the side-netting with a snapshot following a jinking run as the islanders reached half-time unscathed.
Anorthosis introduced striker Nikolaos Frousos in place of defender Traianos Dellas at the restart, signalling their attacking intent. More significantly perhaps, they also had to replace Beqaj – struggling for fitness – with his deputy, Nagy. Still, the pattern of the game remained unchanged with the hosts pressing for a breakthrough. Cleyton was first to be denied by Nagy, who parried the Brazilian's shot before Karagounis blazed over from the edge of the area with a clear sight of goal. Mantzios was kept out by another fine stop from the substitute custodian.
Cleyton made way for Dimitris Salpingidis after the hour and it was the latter's contribution which led to the Athens outfit finally breaking the deadlock after 69 minutes. Salpingidis raced down the right and sent over a cross which Cédric Bardon, defending, could only direct into the path of Karagounis on the edge of the box and the midfielder's low strike squirmed under the body of Nagy to prompt roars of relief among the home crowd. With Anorthosis visibly deflated, Panathinaikos played out the last 20 minutes in relative comfort to claim a place in the last 16 for the first time since 2001/02.