Arsenal's considerably improved away form in domestic competition is not being matched in Europe. A sixth defeat in seven Champions' League games outside England last night left them in third place at the half-way stage of Group C, which Panathinaikos now control even more comprehensively following three straight victories.
"0-1 against The Arsenal," was again the unwanted theme tune to a raucous evening's entertainment. Arsène Wenger's team have been beaten by that minimal margin in their last four trips to the continent but once more they could have no legitimate complaint at the justice of the outcome. As against Real Mallorca two weeks ago they took far too long to present any sort of attacking threat.
Francis Jeffers, introduced with just over 20 minutes to play, livened them up a little but Panathinaikos held out comfortably for their first victory over English opposition in 11 attempts, rapturously received by an emotional full house. Arsenal's frustration was reflected on the final whistle in an equally passionate outburst at the referee by Thierry Henry.
"He was upset about the diving of the Greek players who stayed down and looked very badly injured, then came straight back onto the pitch," said Wenger. "We just had to keep him quiet." The manager appeared less concerned than most observers about his side's performance and prospects of reaching the second stage. "To get through we have to defend better and not be too alarmist," he added.
The previous meeting between the teams was at the Olympic Stadium on a bitterly cold evening on which Panathinaikos froze against a second-string Arsenal team that had no chance of qualifying. Since then, they have moved back to their traditional home, the atmospheric Apostolos Nikolaidis, which Wenger described as "like the old Southampton ground".
It was certainly noisier and less friendly than The Dell and a number of Arsenal fans claimed to have been hit by missiles. The already impressive volume and synchronised chanting redoubled when Goran Vlaovic almost scored after 11 minutes in which Arsenal had barely crossed the half-way line. From a right wing corner, the Croatian international, although shorter than any of his markers, was allowed to direct a strong header wide of David Seaman which Ashley Cole headed just as firmly off the line.
The home supporters did not have to wait long for a goal, however. The Dane Jan Michaelsen was given far too much room on the right and his cross was headed in by the stooping Giorgios Karagounis. Karagounis appeared to be feeling the effects of a heavy tackle by Ray Parlour; it was one of several challenges which upset the Greeks, whose native players tended to go down too easily and overdo the theatrical effects.
A poor first-half for Arsenal ended with a mix-up between their two old heads at the back, which should have led to a second goal. Neither Seaman nor Keown intercepted a long pass and, with the goalkeeper not prepared to risk conceding a penalty, Emmanuel Olisadebe wasted a clear opportunity by shooting into the side netting.
A shot by Fredrik Ljungberg and a header by Sylvain Wiltord, both off target, were the visitors' only attempts on goal before the interval. Wenger reacted by switching Parlour to the wing, then replacing him with Giovanni van Bronckhorst after only eight minutes.
There was a marginal improvement, but a couple of corners came to nothing and Panathinaikos remained dangerous on the break, testing Matthew Upson's ability and composure. He responded well emerging as one of Arsenal's few impressive performers even after the tall Cypriot striker Michalis Konstantinou was sent on for Vlaovic, a huge plaster covering 19 stitches in a head wound sustained last weekend.
Remarkably, neither goalkeeper needed to make another save until the last 10 minutes, when two Arsenal substitutes were involved in their team's only real scoring opportunity of the night. Nwankwo Kanu played the ball forward and after deflecting off two defenders, it fell for Francis Jeffers, whose shot was smartly blocked by the goalkeeper.
Panathinaikos (4-4-2): Nikopolidis; Henriksen, Vokolos, Fyssas, Kyrgiakos; Basinas, Paulo Sousa, Karagounis (Saric, 84), Michaelsen; Vlaovic (Konstantinou, 65), Olisadebe (Kolkka, 69). Substitutes not used: Kotsolis (gk), Galetto, Warzycha, Boateng.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Seaman; Lauren, Keown, Upson, Cole; Parlour (Van Bronckhorst, 53), Vieira, Pires, Ljungberg (Kanu, 67); Henry, Wiltord (Jeffers, 67). Substitutes not used: Wright (gk), Inamoto, Luzhny, Stepanovs.
Referee: V M Melo Pereira (Portugal).