Olympiakos headed for final

The Greek Cup’s defending champion Olympiakos took a firm step toward another final appearance this season with a 3-1 win at home against Larissa last night in a first-leg semifinal. The two sides, which were both pruned down to 10 men yesterday, meet again for their return leg on April 12. On Tuesday night, AEK overcame the stubborn resistance of third-division underdog Agrotikos Asteras for an eventual 3-0 home win that should be enough to get the Athens club to the competition’s final. They, too, play their return leg on April 12. Though neither AEK nor Olympiakos can consider their finals berths certain, the pair, two of the country’s biggest clubs in terms of popularity and success, will, more likely than not, clash for the cup title. This season’s competition has generated far more excitement than in previous years as a result of the local soccer federation’s decision to opt for one-off knockout encounters in the previous rounds. In past seasons, all cup games – except for the final – were determined by home-and-away legs, which reduced the prospects of shock results. There have been several surprises so far this season, the biggest of all being Agrotikos Asteras’s run to the semifinals. Along the way, the club eliminated fellow Thessaloniki giant PAOK in the fourth round, as well as Cretan club Ergotelis, which had previously ousted Panathinaikos. In last night’s action, Olympiakos was shocked into action after Argentinean defender Gabriel Schurrer was sent off early in the game, in the 23rd minute, for grabbing Larissa striker Guga’s jersey as he appeared set to break through the last line of defense. Down to 10 men, Olympiakos responded by opening the scoring eight minutes after the incident. Brazilian star Rivaldo curled in one of his trademark left-footed free kicks on to the horizontal bar. The ban bounced back into play and Cypriot striker Michalis Constantinou was in the right place to head home for a 1-0 score. Four minutes earlier, Rivaldo missed an opportunity to open the scoring by failing to convert a penalty kick. Olympiakos went up 2-0 in the 42nd minute, and Rivaldo – giving his all, not just for Olympiakos, but possible selection for Brazil’s World Cup finals squad this summer – was involved again. He provided a well-struck corner kick that was headed home by midfielder Ieroklis Stoltidis. Fighting hard to take advantage of its one-man edge, Larissa’s prospects of reducing the game’s two-goal deficit were dampened in the 65th minute of play when defender Helder was sent off for an unfair tackle on Predrag Djordjevic. Even so, the visitors managed to strike back seven minutes later when midfielder Panayiotis Bahramis fed striker Stathis Aloneftis with a precision pass for the latter to slot past keeper Antonis Nikopolidis. But the home team restored its two-goal advantage in the 80th minute when Constantinou lashed on to Dennis Serban’s awkward pass in the defensive zone to strike in his second for the evening to offer Olympiakos breathing space in April 12’s return leg.