PAO close to Champions League

Panathinaikos took a big step toward clinching Greece’s second Champions League spot with a 3-0 win against Panionios in the playoffs last night. Going into the game aware of rival AEK’s heavy 4-0 loss at Aris earlier in the evening, the hosts stormed into the game to lead 2-0 by the 41st minute. The result took Panathinaikos three points clear of AEK in the playoffs with two rounds of play remaining. Panathinaikos opened the scoring in the 21st minute through a solo effort from the left by skipper Giorgos Karagounis, whose shot went in off the post. He added a second just minutes before the halftime break with a shot from 15 meters. Panathinaikos’s third goal in the 65th minute sealed its victory, with a penalty won and converted by Manucho after Ivica Majstorovic fouled in the box. He attempted to stop a 30-meter pass from the right by youngster Sotiris Ninis that put Manucho clear with the keeper to beat. The match was attended by Greece coach Otto Rehhagel, who is preparing his squad for its Euro 2008 finals appearance. AEK, who finished as runner-up at the end of the regular season, suffered a dismal afternoon yesterday against Aris in Thessaloniki. The Athens team’s 4-0 defeat at Aris followed a 4-1 defeat to Panathinaikos a week earlier. Aris had not beaten AEK in Thessaloniki since 1999, but this was the team’s biggest ever home win over the Athens club. The hosts led 2-0 at halftime and struck twice early in the second half to complete the thrashing. Aris meets Olympiakos in the Greek Cup final on May 17.