Underdog falls after battle

It took AEK nearly an hour to start gouging away at the stubborn resistance of the Greek Cup’s surprise team, the third division’s Agrotikos Asteras, in their first-leg semifinal encounter in Athens last night, before the favorite finally won with a 3-0 score. AEK, which opened the scoring in the 59th minute, added a couple more late in the game to establish a solid, if not invincible, advantage ahead of the tie’s second leg, at the underdog’s modest home base in the suburbs of Thessaloniki on April 12. For Agrotikos Asteras, a top contender for promotion to the second division, the game was billed as the club’s biggest ever. Hailing from the outskirts of Thessaloniki, Agrotikos Asteras, whose current squad is bolstered by several players with experience in the country’s top division, is only the second third-division club to have reached the Greek Cup’s semifinals. The unanticipated feat, previously achieved two seasons ago by current second-division team Kastoria, has helped inject badly needed zest to the country’s cup competition following years of general apathy. In its bid to revitalize the Greek Cup by increasing the probability of surprise results, the country’s soccer federation opted to scrap home-and-away ties in the competition’s earlier rounds this season for one-off knockout encounters. On its way to the semifinals, Agrotikos Asteras caused a major upset by eliminating regional giant PAOK in the fourth round. The match ended 1-1, and Agrotikos Asteras was the winner of the ensuing penalty shootout. Agrotikos Asteras also knocked out the second division’s Kastoria and Ergotelis, the Cretan club that had previously upset Panathinaikos, as well as Ethnikos Asteras. Last night, AEK striker Nikos Lyberopoulos offered relief for his team by heading home a corner kick right before the hour mark, in the 59th minute. Reflecting the home team’s upper hand in the game, the corner kick that produced Lyberopoulos’s goal was AEK’s seventh, as opposed to just one for Agrotikos Asteras at that point of the game. AEK had dominated play in the first half but never truly threatened to score. Defender Vangelis Moras added AEK’s second goal, also with a header, in the 80th minute. Six minutes later, midfielder Miltos Sapanis made it 3-0 for AEK with an incredible long-range lob, struck from just over the halfway line, that floated over the out-of-place keeper and into the net off the horizontal bar. Runaway league leader Olympiakos will host Larissa tonight in the Greek Cup’s other semifinal first-leg encounter.