AEK Athens FC all but booked their place in the fourth round of the UEFA Cup as a storming first-half display gave them a 4-0 first-leg victory over Maccabi Haifa FC at the Nikos Gomas stadium.
It could have been very different, though, had Yakubu Ayegbeni not missed a penalty by the narrowest of margins on 12 minutes after Dionisios Chiotis had tripped Yaniv Katan as he chased a loose ball in the box. Ayegbeni's penalty was firm and straight, but struck the underside of the bar and bounced down, on and not over the line. Two minutes later, Maccabi were behind.
A corner was only partially cleared, and when the ball broke to Grigorios Georgatos 20 metres from goal, he lashed a formidable left-foot volley into the top corner. Suddenly everything AEK attempted came off, and Themistoklis Nikolaidis made it 2-0 after 24 minutes. He was completely unmarked as he rose at the near post to meet Georgatos's cross, and as his header hit the bar and bounced down, referee Gomes Costa judged the ball to have crossed the line.
Milen Petkov made it 3-0 seven minutes later, as Nikolaidis turned provider. The Bulgarian got on the end of his left-foot cross, and somehow managed to loop a header over Dudu Awat and in off the far post as Vassilios Lakis stole in. The pick of the crop, though, was the fourth goal, which arrived after 36 minutes. Lakis chested down a long pass into the path of Theodoros Zagorakis, and he toe-ended the ball past Awat.
Yet at that stage, Maccabi could feel a little aggrieved. They certainly had not been outplayed, and, even aside from the penalty, had twice gone close through Giovani Rosso.
It was a different story in the second half though, as AEK took complete control, with Georgatos a persistent threat down the AEK left. Georgatos, indeed, almost made it five after 56 minutes, stealing in on the left side of the box, and crashing in a shot that Awat did well to push wide. Four minutes later Lakis headed over from a Zagorakis cross, and at that stage it looked as though the Israeli champions could be facing a real pounding.
AEK took their foot off the gas a little after that, though, and while Maccabi never threatened to get back into the game, they at least were spared further embarrassment. Lakis had the only other serious chance, opting to shoot after a fine flowing move down the right when he might have passed to the unmarked Georgatos, Arik Benado getting back to block.
AEK coach Dusko Bajevic felt the penalty had changed the game. "In the first quarter of the game we were numb," he said. "But after the penalty we woke up. The reason we won was that we didn't look to do anything spectacular, but were solid in our play.
I believe Maccabi are a better side than we saw tonight."
Maccabi coach Itzhak Shum added: "If the penalty had gone in, everything would have been different. AEK turned every attack into goals, but our defence was tragic.
I congratulate AEK. We'll give it our all in the second leg, but overturning a four-goal deficit will be very difficult."
Nevertheless, it was a fine night for AEK, and they must already be looking beyond the second leg in Cyprus in a fortnight towards the fourth round.