Drama heightens in playoffs

The battle for the country’s remaining Champions League berth has taken on renewed interest following Panathinaikos’s return to form Wednesday for a 4-1 thrashing against visiting AEK. Both clubs now share top spot of the newly introduced six-round playoffs with 11 points apiece after two games. AEK, which ended a narrow runner-up in the Super League after a series of comfortable late-season wins placed the Athens club just two points behind the league champion Olympiakos, went into the playoffs as the favorite. The Athens club’s previous defeat dated back to February 21. But Panathinaikos’s spirited showing on Wednesday may have reignited the club’s hopes following a slump late in the regular season. «I think we played a fantastic first half and controlled the game in the second half. Our win was without doubt a fair result,» said Panathinaikos coach Jose Peseiro, whose side led 4-0 at halftime. «It’s given us motivation to carry on this way. I congratulate the players on their performance. It showed how good they really are. We will continue like this until the end for the place we want while keeping in mind the quality of AEK, which simply had a bad night. Also, we’re not taking Aris and Panionios out of the picture. They have objectives.» Bewildered by the unexpected heavy loss, a small group of about 20 AEK fans, whose behavior was described as civilized, turned up at the club’s training center yesterday morning to seek explanations from the team’s coach Nikos Kostenoglou. Also Wednesday night, Panionios, playing at home, overcame Aris 1-0 to join the latter on three points after two rounds. The playoffs champion will join Olympiakos as Greece’s other Champions League representative in the new season. As the league champion, Olympiakos will be drawn straight into the prestigious European club-level competition’s group stage. Greece’s other qualifier will need to get past a home-and-away encounter for a place in the groups. As the regular season’s runner-up, AEK began the playoffs with eight points. Third-placed Panathinaikos began with seven points, fourth-placed Aris with two and fifth-placed Panionios with none. In the next round of play, this Sunday, AEK hosts Aris and Panionios greets Panathinaikos.