United hit five as feeble Greeks give out gifts

Manchester United 5 Panathinaikos 0
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The Independent Football

No Greek bearing gifts has ever dangled such enticing presents as the ones Panathinaikos offered Manchester United last night.

They were everything Sir Alex Ferguson could have wanted to open a Champions' League campaign. They were unremittingly feeble and had caved in so completely by the interval that the United manager was able to treat the second half as almost a workout for Sunday's arrival of Arsenal.

Manchester United usually deal ruthlessly with sides that arrive at Old Trafford for group games but even by their standards this was a simple affair. It seemed rather arrogant for them to list their heaviest victories in European competition in the match programme but as half-time beckoned with the home side four goals up, it seemed very prescient. The Anderlecht defence, destroyed by the Busby Babes 10-0, must have been dodgy indeed but it would have been hard-pushed to have matched Panathinaikos for incompetence.

United's display in 1956 was said by the bewildered Belgian captain to match the skill of the Hungarians with the stamina of the Russians but last night, ridiculous as it may seem, they did not even play particularly well. United sometimes surrendered possession lazily, Rio Ferdinand seemed occasionally vulnerable and Tim Howard made a fabulous one-handed save from Michael Konstantinou, who reached Silvio Maric's cross fractionally before Mikaël Silvestre.

In between all this, Panathinaikos had to defend and they did so with the conviction of a side which had lost 15 of its last 17 Champions' League fixtures outside Athens. Their coach, Itzhak Shum, who had conceded five when taking Maccabi Haifa to Old Trafford last year, warned his side that United would try to finish the game in the first 20 minutes. He was only slightly out, the contest being 14 minutes old when Quinton Fortune struck the decisive second that put the match beyond Panathinaikos' reach.

The only surprise was that this turkey shoot passed Ruud van Nistelrooy by. The Dutchman's passing was at times exquisite but he failed to score. "When people see the scoreline as 5-0 and see Ruud van Nistelrooy's name's not on it, they will probably think he didn't play," Ferguson said. "He was contributing in other ways and showed himself to be a real footballer tonight."

It seemed he had the final touch as Panathinaikos' defence froze in the face of a 12th-minute corner from Ryan Giggs - who wore Roy Keane's captain's armband with impressive conviction - but the boot that bundled it over the line belonged to Silvestre. For a man averaging practically a goal a game in Europe, it was a curious evening.

Disastrous would be the appropriate adjective to describe Antonis Nikopolidis' night. He had given away the fatal corner, pushing away a tame shot from Phil Neville, part of a midfield that dispensed with invention - there was no Cristiano Ronaldo - but which was big on solidity. Much worse was to follow.

The goalkeeper could not be blamed for United's second, which came two minutes after their first, a wonderfully struck drive from Fortune from the edge of the area. The third, however, was something he would not wish to see in any Christmas video, a scuffed shot from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer who, fed by Giggs, saw the ball squirm through Nikopolidis' gloves, body and legs and trickle into the net. He would have wanted the earth to swallow him whole, although Shum did the next best thing. He substituted him at half time.

The fourth was, in its way, even more simple. A straightforward cross from John O'Shea was not cut out and Nicky Butt leapt effortlessly beyond a feeble challenge to head home. Thereafter, this Champions' League fixture resembled a practice match to everyone except Eric Djemba-Djemba who, just before the end of a hopelessly uneven contest, drove home his first goal for the club. He will find them harder to come by in the League Cup.

Manchester United (4-4-1-1): Howard; G Neville, Ferdinand, Silvestre, O'Shea (Fletcher, 57); Solskjaer (Bellion, 45), Butt (Djemba-Djemba, 57), P Neville, Fortune; Giggs; Van Nistelrooy. Substitutes not used: Ronaldo, Keane, Forlan, Carroll (gk).

Panathinaikos (4-2-3-1): Nikopolidis (Chalkias, h-t); Seitaridis, Henriksen, Kirigiakos, Fissas; Goumas (Epalle, h-t), Zutautas; Maric, Sanmartean, Papadopoulos (Olisadebe, 62); Konstantinou. Substitutes not used: Morris, Munch, Konstantinidis, Michaelsen.

Referee: A Sars (Fr).