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APOEL eye their place in history

The standard football cliches have been out in full force in Nicosia in the last few weeks.

As the Cypriot press runs headlines like "APOEL Among the Stars", "APOEL - I Have Lost my Mind" and "Living the Dream" to name a few, players and coaching staff at APOEL Nicosia have repeatedly tried to play down expectations of qualification for the last 16 of the Champions League.

The comments emanating from the Cypriot champions have all followed a very similar format. The expected "we're not thinking about the group table, we'll just give 100% in every game and see what happens" has featured, followed closely by the phrase "we are delighted to be where we are, but we know that everything can change with each game", with coach Ivan Jovanovic taking to repeatedly using the phrase "we know who we are" in the run-up to Champions League fixtures, trying to make sure that everyone else understands that his team is not getting carried away with its success.

As APOEL go into Wednesday's Champions League matchday 5 game away to Zenit St Petersburg top of Group G, knowing that even if they were to lose, a draw between Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk in the other game of the group would be enough to see them through to the last 16, expectation could hardly be any higher.

In their second Champions League group stage appearance, the 21-times Cypriot champions are still unbeaten and have been the competition's surprise package this season, securing 2-1 victories against Zenit and Porto at home, while holding the Portuguese champions and Shakhtar Donetsk to 1-1 draws on their travels.

If a measure of APOEL's success so far is needed, it should be mentioned that while their group may not include a Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Manchester United, APOEL's opponents in Group G have all won the Europa League in the last four seasons.

And for a club with an overall market value of a little more than half the transfer fee that Wednesday's opponents Zenit splashed out to sign Portuguese playmaker Danny three years ago, the achievement becomes even more extraordinary.

In reaching the competition group stages for the first time in 2009, APOEL followed in the footsteps of Anorthosis Famagusta, who the year before became the first ever Cypriot club to do so. Despite finishing last in their group having collected only two points, Nicosia showed the fighting spirit and tactical discipline that have been characteristic of this year's campaign with a couple of battling away performances to hold Atheltico Madrid and Chelsea to draws.

The role that the changes to the format of Champions League qualification introduced by UEFA President Michel Platini three years ago have played in ensuring APOEL's presence in the competition in two out of the last three years cannot be underestimated. However, APOEL's success must be placed in the context of a golden era of club football on the island.

While the national side continue to disappoint on the European stage - they finished in last place in their qualifying group for Euro 2012 - right now this season's UEFA country coefficient rankings sees Cyprus in sixth place, ahead of Italy, Portugal and France.

This has not been down to APOEL alone. Under the guidance of Jordi Cruyff as director of football, AEK Larnaca, a club that two years ago were playing in the Second Division, overcame Norwegians Rosenborg to make the Europa League group stage this season. They have secured draws against Steaua Bucharest and away to Schalke so far.

It would be wrong to assume that the problems that have plagued the game in Cyprus are long gone; football violence, clubs in financial difficulties and low attendances have hardly subsided in recent years.

However, looking at APOEL's Champions League performances, a collective approach to the game and a genuine sense of belief that they are not necessarily consigned to finishing bottom of their group have been the major reasons for their success.

Following their qualification in August, Jovanovic said: "In 2009, we headed into the unknown; we didn't know what was in store for us. Now we do, which was why we wanted to return to this competition. We have targets and we won't be going there just to have fun."

Jovanovic is currently one of the very few managers in Cyprus who has full control over the club's transfer policy without any board interference and has avoided major overhauls to his squad during summer transfer windows, a standard practice for clubs on the island. He has kept his central midfield partnership of former Chelsea player Nuno Morais and Benfica trainee Helio Pinto intact since 2007. While reports in the Cypriot media that both players have been receptive to the idea of opting for Cypriot citizenship should be taken with a pinch of salt for now, this underlies the commitment to the cause.

Against Zenit on Wednesday, APOEL are unlikely to waver from the approach that has brought them to the brink of qualification. The Cypriots do not mind the opposition enjoying most of the possession - as has been the case in all four of their games so far - and they will look to restrict the home side to shots from distance, while calculating the opportune moment to commit men forward and counterattack.

Once again, on paper the odds are firmly stacked against APOEL to get anything from the game, especially as they could be without star man Ailton Almeida, who picked up a knock against Porto and may not recover in time. Zenit have won their last nine home games in European competition, but Jovanovic's players have already shown that they are prepared to defy the odds in their bid to become the first ever Cypriot team to qualify for the Champions League knockout phase.

Should this happen, it would not only be an issue of showing Europe who they are, but securing their place in the history books.

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