Olympiakos holds strong for UEFA Cup fourth-round place

Rebounding from last weekend’s shock away loss in Crete to struggling Ergotelis, which slashed Olympiakos’s commanding domestic league lead to two points and raised questions about a roster reshuffle, the Piraeus club held strongly against French side Sochaux last night to advance to the fourth round of the UEFA Cup. Greece’s other UEFA Cup representative, Panathinaikos, played its second leg later in the evening, away, against Spanish side Sevilla, with a 1-0 home win to defend. Ierocles Stoltidis put the visitors ahead midway through the second half for a 1-0 score that was kept to the end. Olympiakos had also won with the same score in the tie’s first leg a week earlier. Sochaux had the encounter’s marginal upper hand in the first half. Playing to a modest turnout of some 14,000 fans at its 20,000-capacity Stade Bonal Stadium in the east of France – many were presumably repelled by freezing weather of minus 5 Celsius – Sochaux created several promising scoring opportunities, a couple of them dangerous. Tunisian striker Santos was supplied the game’s first real chance to score in the ninth minute, but his close-range strike from within the small box was blocked. Seven minutes later the home side came even closer to scoring when Moroccan striker Jaouad Zairi sent in a threatening cross to Santos, his Tunisian partner up front, who tapped onto Olympiakos keeper Antonis Nikopolidis. The latter performed impeccably all night to provide Olympiakos’s clean sheet. Zairi and Santos combined again moments later, in the 18th, but the Tunisian’s header from a precise Zairi cross was blocked by Nikopolidis. Despite occasional pressure applied from the French in the first half, Olympiakos remained composed, mustering the odd dangerous attack of its own. One of these was orchestrated by attacking left back Grigoris Georgatos on 22 minutes. He curved in a long-range cross from the left to Yiannakis Okkas. But the stocky, hard-fighting Cypriot striker’s header went straight to the keeper. At the other end, eight minutes later, Olympiakos goalie Nikopolidis needed to react fast to beat two French opponents, on the counterattack, to the ball, some 10 meters outside the penalty area. In the 41st minute, Stoltidis troubled the home side with a firm strike, low and hard, that sailed just wide. Sochaux lost its slight dominance in the second half as Olympiakos settled. Tension rose after 52 minutes, as some scuffling between a cluster of players led to yellow cards for Sochaux defender Souleymane Diawara and Olympiakos’s Gabriel Schurrer. The Argentinean commanded in defense throughout the game. The encounter’s solitary goal arrived in the 67th minute when, following a goalmouth scramble, Stoltidis got his foot firmly onto the ball from a Predrag Djordjevic cross from the left. Faced with the uphill task of needing two goals to take the tie into extra time, and three to win, Sochaux, whose effort for the evening was dampened by key absences due to injuries, failed to respond. The news was not all good for Olympiakos yesterday. For the second time within weeks this season, the Piraeus club was handed a home-match fan ban yesterday by a sports tribunal for violence involving club supporters in Crete last weekend. Yesterday’s penalty, one home game without fans, was doubled because of a repeat offense. Several weeks ago, Olympiakos was saddled with a four-match fan ban after fans clashed violently in a Greek league match against Panionios.

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