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Europa League preview: Arsenal in Serbia, Everton desperate vs. Lyon

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The twelve groups of the UEFA Europa League bring forth soccer on Thursday, with a bevy of matches dotting the continent.

[ MORE: Full Europa schedule ]

Here are the top five matches to keep an eye on.

Everton vs. Lyon — 3:05 p.m. ET

If you would’ve told Ronald Koeman his Toffees would walk into this match with just one point but sit only another behind Lyon, he’d probably tell you to take a hike. But Lyon drew 1-1 at Apollon Limassol and 1-1 at home to Atalanta, opening the door for Everton to finish the day in Group E’s top two slots.

Nabil Fekir and Real Madrid loanee Mariano Diaz have seven goals each for Lyon, while ex-Premier Leaguers Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore are also key components of the French outfit’s attack.

Red Star Belgrade vs. Arsenal — 1 p.m. ET

Arsenal in Europa has been pretty thrilling, with 3-1 and 4-2 wins under Arsene Wenger‘s belt ahead of the first of two with the 1991 European Cup winners. It’s a nice challenge for Canadian national team backstop Milan Borjan, who should be the man to try to thwart the Gunners in Serbia.

Hoffenheim vs. Istanbul Basaksehir — 3:05 p.m. ET

The favorites to win the group are dead last in the group as they welcome the perceived group underdogs from Turkey. The Super Lig runners-up have some familiar names on the roster with Emmanuel Adebayor, Gael Clichy, Eljero Elia, Mevlut Erdinc, Gokhan Inler, Aurelien Chedjou, and Emre Belozoglu.

AC Milan vs. AEK Athens — 3:05 p.m. ET

Milan has been burying goals in Europa play, with five at Austria Wien and three in a home win over Rijeka. Enter Athens, which has scooped up four points in group play and will look for a win to put them ahead of the group-leading Rossoneri.

Nice vs. Lazio — 1 p.m. ET

The only group with a pair of 2-0 teams. Mario Balotelli is plenty familiar with his Roman opposition from his time in Serie A.

AEK beats Panathinaikos 1-0 to keep Greek playoffs lead

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Lazaros Christodoulopoulos scored the only goal in the 85th minute as AEK Athens beat Panathinaikos 1-0 in the Greek league playoffs on Sunday.

[ MORE: Chelsea crowned champions, but more on their mind ]

A headed clearance fell to Christodoulopoulos a few meters (yards) outside the area and his powerful shot bounced once before the ball found the bottom right corner of the net at Athens Olympic Stadium.

PAOK took advantage of its numerical superiority to beat visiting Panionios 1-0 with a goal by substitute Aleksandar Prijovic in the 75th. Panionios’ Masoud Shojaei was dismissed with a second yellow card in the 68th.

AEK is leading the playoffs. It’s a point ahead of PAOK, two ahead of Panionios and four ahead of Panathinaikos.

The playoffs winner joins Olympiakos in Champions League qualifiers.

AEK Athens beats Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) AEK Athens defeated Greek league leader Olympiakos 1-0 in an ill-tempered game on Sunday that saw 12 yellow cards and two dismissals.

[ MORE: Messi brace rescues Barca, Pescara earns second win of season ]

Astrit Ajdarevic scored the only goal in the 34th minute with a free kick that deflected off Olympiakos defender Manuel da Costa.

Olympiakos’ athletic director Francois Modesto was sent to the stands for protesting about the lead-up to AEK’s goal. His team’s central defender Alberto Botia was dismissed after a second yellow card in the 75th for pulling an advancing AEK forward’s jersey.

Despite the defeat, its second of the season, Olympiakos has a 10-point cushion over second-place Panionios, which beat 10-man Iraklis 1-0.

PAOK, a 4-0 winner over Veria, remains in third place, one point ahead of Panathinaikos, which beat Asteras 5-0 on Saturday. AEK is joint fifth with Xanthi.

On again, off again: Greek Cup final canceled after ref spat

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) Risking sanctions from FIFA, Greece’s government has postponed Saturday’s Greek Cup final, citing security concerns.

Stavros Kontonis, a deputy minister for sport, announced the decision Friday, noting that the final between champion Olympiakos and AEK Athens would be delayed for “at least 10 days.”

Fans had already been banned from the game at the 69,000-seat Olympic Stadium.

[ MORE: Norwich City 0-1 Manchester United ]

Kontonis canceled the cup competition in March following fan violence at a semifinal match, but later reversed the decision facing the threat of an international ban by FIFA.

On Thursday, AEK accused the Greek soccer association of favoring its opponents with the “underhand and infuriating” selection of match officials for the final.

Greek midfielder receives additional bans for Nazi-style salute

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AEK Athens midfielder Giorgos Katidis has received a five-match ban for his Nazi-style salute after a goal in his club’s 2-1 Super League victory over Veria last month.

The Greek Football Association (EPO) disciplinary panel also ordered the 20-year-old to pay a $1,300 fine and has forbidden the player from entering any sports stadiums for three months. The suspension, however, is merely symbolic given that AEK previously banned him from playing until the end of the Super League season.

On the surface the EPO’s punishment may feel a bit soft. A five match suspension, a nominal fine and a ban on entering sports stadiums will hardly leave a mark on young Katidis. By means of comparison, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez was handed an eight match ban and a $61,000 fine by England’s Football Association after he was found guilty of calling Manchester United’s Patrice Evra a ‘negro’ seven times during a match in October 2011.

One might say the difference in punishments reflects each nation’s respective tolerance towards racism in football. But keep in mind that the EPO already issued its most aggressive sanction to Katidis, a lifetime ban from playing on the Greek national team. For any professional player who dreams of playing in World Cups and European Championships – let alone a player who captained his under 21 national team – that’s a pretty hefty price to pay.

There is no excuse for what Katidis did. It’s worth noting, however, that since the incident Katidis has repeatedly apologized for his actions calling them “totally unacceptable.” He’s also requested he be dropped from AEK’s first team.

Although it’s difficult to say whether Katidis’ reactions are heart-felt and indicative of a changed man, it certainly looks that way. The leaders of football governing bodies – especially Sepp Blatter – would do well to note the impact of such strict sanctions.