Big guns clash tonight

AEK and Olympiakos, both part of the three-horse race for this season’s league title, will clash tonight in a Greek Cup semifinal first leg at the Athens Olympic Stadium, where AEK hosts its home games. With just four rounds of play remaining in the Greek first division, two points separate AEK and Olympiakos, second and third respectively, in the Greek first division. Front-runner Panathinaikos holds a slender one-point lead over AEK. Tonight’s opponents will be looking for a favorable start in this two-leg encounter to keep their hopes alive for the double – league and cup titles. Both sides go into tonight’s clash following victories on the weekend. AEK registered a 2-1 win over Xanthi, another semifinalist in cup competition that appears set for the final. One of the country’s more formidable performers this season, Xanthi defeated lowly Aris 2-1 away in the first leg of its semifinal clash a week ago. Xanthi hosts Aris in the return leg next week. Oympiakos goes into tonight’s match following an important 2-0 away win in Thessaloniki over struggling Apollon Kalamaria, a club that needs points in the remaining rounds to avoid relegation. AEK will have key striker Nikos Lymberopoulos at its disposal after the player successfully appealed a three-game suspension that trimmed his penalty to one game. It was served last weekend. Lymberopoulos had been sent off in a match against PAOK on April 10. The sports tribunal’s decision was greeted with enthusiasm at the AEK camp, which now goes into tonight’s match virtually full-strength. At Olympiakos, Brazilian striker Giovanni returned from last weekend’s Thessaloniki clash against Apollon Kalamaria burdened by a slight calf muscle injury. But club doctors said they expected a quick recovery in time for tonight’s cup semifinal. As things have turned out though, coach Dusan Bajevic may opt for a combination up front that does not include Giovanni. Key striker Yiannakis Okkas returns from suspension and, moreover, Nery Castillo’s impressive performance last weekend makes him a prime candidate for a place in the team’s starting lineup tonight. Besides scoring one of his club’s two goals against Apollon Kalamaria and contributing to the other, Castillo combined effectively with Brazilian teammate Rivaldo. Jumping ahead to the Greek Cup final, scheduled for May 21 in Patras, the Greek soccer federation yesterday rejected a request from state radio and television ERT’s administration to transfer the match to another date. Cup final day coincides with the widely watched Eurovision pop song contest, which ERT will broadcast live.

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