Olympiakos takes major step toward cup final

Olympiakos took a big step toward qualifying for next month’s Greek Cup final with a 1-0 away win over rival AEK in a first leg semifinal last night. Both are part of a three-horse race for the league title. The visiting Piraeus club, which dominated the game’s first half, scored the game’s only goal early, in the eighth minute, with a powerful shot from outside the box by Predrag Djordjevic. An improved side in the second half, AEK was deprived of an equalizer by the goalpost on five occasions, three of them, quite miraculously, during one sequence of play. AEK’s triple opportunity to level the score came in the 58th minute when defender Nikola Malbasa floated in a free kick that was headed onto the left post by captain Costas Katsouranis. The ball rebounded straight back to him, but his second header struck the same post and bounced back for striker Julio Cesar, who shot to the horizontal bar from close range. Katsouranis was denied by the post again on the 83rd minute. AEK’s fifth close call came during the game’s last minute, when a Vladan Ivic free kick beat keeper Antonis Nikopolidis but not the post. Some 40,000 fans, including about 2,500 supporters of visitor Olympiakos, attended last night’s game. After opening the scoring in the eighth minute, Olympiakos nearly increased its lead after 16 minutes when a strong shot by Dimitris Mavrogenidis flew just wide. Two minutes later, AEK missed its first scoring opportunity when Alessandre Soares, unchallenged, headed a Cesar corner kick but missed his target. A close-range attempt from Yiannakis Okkas, who connected with a free kick from Brazilian star Rivaldo, sailed wide. In the second half, AEK came close when Cesar, unmarked inside the box, sent the ball over the bar after being fed by Nikos Lyberopoulos. In the 77th minute, Olympiakos’s Argentinean defender Gabriel Schurrer replaced Tassos Pantos, who was forced to exit with a lower-back strain. Two minutes later, the visiting side’s coach Dusan Bajevic replaced striker Okkas with the in-form Nery Castillo. With the home team pressuring for an equalizer, Bajevic made his third and final substitution in the 85th minute, bringing on Giovanni for fellow Brazilian Rivaldo. The two sides play their return leg next Wednesday at Olympiakos’s Karaiskaki Stadium. The Greek Cup’s other semifinal pair, Aris and Xanthi, also play their return leg on the same night. Xanthi holds a considerable advantage following last week’s 2-1 away win in the opening leg. The cup final will be held May 21 in Patras.

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