AEK takes lead with away win against OFI

Brazilian striker Julio Cesar came off the bench to score a second-half goal Saturday and help AEK beat OFI 1-0 on the island of Crete. It was AEK’s eighth consecutive win in the Greek first division and the victory sent the Athens club to the top of the 16-team standings with 32 points from 13 games. Defending champion Olympiakos, which hosts newcomer Larissa tonight, follows in second place with 30 points. The Piraeus club would regain the lead with a win in the encounter, which completes the league’s 13th round of play. In Saturday’s other match, PAOK played to a 2-2 draw at Levadiakos. Third-placed Panathinaikos, desperate to gain ground on breakaway rivals AEK and Olympiakos and appease a seemingly growing number of disgruntled fans, was held to a 2-2 draw by Thessaloniki club Iraklis in Athens last night. The visitors equalized late in the game – in the 84th minute – with a spectacular diving header from striker Costas Kapetanos. Panathinaikos, on 24 points, lies equal-third with Xanthi, eight points behind front-runner AEK. Panathinaikos’s Italian coach Alberto Malesani has faced intensifying pressure from fans since his team’s recent elimination from the Greek Cup by second-division club Ergotelis. The dissatisfaction grew last week following the club’s demoralizing exit from European competition with a 5-1 loss against Werder Bremen in Germany. Despite the protest by fans, club boss Yiannis Vardinoyiannis appears determined to give Malesani as much leeway as possible for his coaching job. AEK dominated the match from the start and pounded the home side with a series of attacks. But the Athenians had to wait until the 70th minute as OFI’s goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis made several brilliant saves. In one of its rare forays into the AEK area, in the 60th minute OFI almost took an unlikely lead when a header by unmarked Nikos Machlas sailed over the crossbar. AEK finally broke the deadlock with a perfectly struck free kick by Cesar from 24 meters. OFI’s task was made even harder in the 75th when Romik Khachatryan was sent off. Xanthi, front-runner in the league for several weeks until the ambitious provincial club started losing ground in recent games, was held to a 2-2 draw by last-placed Kallithea. The stubborn visitors trailed twice but leveled both times. Thessaloniki club Apollon Kalamaria took a solid step away from the relegation zone with a 3-0 home win over struggling Akratitos. In a mid-table battle, Ionikos, playing at home, beat Aegaleo with a triumphant 4-1 score. The home team scored the encounter’s opener in the 14th minute, was equalized in the 35th minute, but responded with two quick goals to go into the break with a 3-1 lead. Ionikos added its fourth midway through the second half. Panionios, hovering just above the relegation zone, beat Atromitos 2-0 in a game played late last night. (AP, Kathimerini)