- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 31, 2016

THESSALONIKI, Greece (AP) - PAOK held Panathinaikos to a 1-1 draw on Tuesday to win the Greek league playoffs and earn a place in the qualifying round of next season’s Champions League.

Playing in front of a boisterous crowd, the northern Greek side went ahead in the 17th minute when an unmarked Garry Rodriguez fired into the top right corner. Dimitris Pelkas set up the goal with an unselfish run through the Panathinaikos defense, delivering the pass to Rodriguez as he fell to the ground.

A speculative shot from distance by Panathinaikos midfielder Robin Lod found its way into the net in the 26th minute, after a failed attempt to clear the danger by PAOK defender Miguel Vitor.

“We knew it would be a difficult game. We wanted a win and so did they,” said PAOK coach Vladan Ivic, who took over in March to rescue the club’s fortunes.

“But our players really gave it everything they had and we made it through. It’s been a difficult year for us, so this is a great moment.”

Tuesday’s match ended another troubled season for Greek football, with clubs hit by the country’s financial crisis and ongoing fan violence at matches. The season’s cup competition was called off, restarted and delayed repeatedly because of fan violence and public statements by club bosses that the government described as incendiary.

Greece was threatened with an international ban by FIFA over the delays which were viewed by the governing body as interference from the government.

The six-game playoffs followed Olympiakos’ runaway title win. PAOK ended the playoffs with 12 points, one ahead of Panathinaikos. AEK finished with nine points and Panionios with four.

PAOK only needed a draw to win the playoff competition but stayws on the offensive.

However, the fans at Toumba stadium were silenced in the 86th when the visitors almost stole a win. A shot by Mladen Petric was stopped with an impossible-looking save by PAOK goalkeeper Panagiotis Glykos.

Hearts stopped again for the home fans in injury time, when English goalkeeper Luke Steele ran into PAOK’s penalty area and headed just wide.

Panathinaikos coach Andrea Stramaccioni described his club’s playoff performance as disappointing.

“It was a season that was not good,” he said. “It will teach us to learn from our mistakes.”

___

Gatopoulos reported from Athens.

Follow Kantouris at https://www.twitter.com/CostasKantouris and Gatopoulos at https://www.twitter.com/dgatopoulos


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