It has around one million people living on it. It isn’t even the biggest island in the Mediterranean Sea. Yet Cyprus’ most successful team, APOEL Nicosia, have reached the last 16 knockout stage of the UEFA Champions League, becoming the first Cypriot team to progress from the group. Their well-earned 0-0 draw away to Zenit St Petersburg confirmed their place of at least second in Group G.
Many football supporters in my famous wee land of five million are scratching their heads at this one. They see the might of Rangers and Celtic; the worldwide fan base of the clubs, the domestic and European trophies won. Yet if it was not for FC Sion fielding ineligible players and therefore allowing Celtic back in to the Europa League, Scotland would have had no participants in any level of European competition this season.
But it is not just simply the size of their country that makes APOEL’s achievement great. In Group G, they faced three of Europe’s top sides; Europa League-holders FC Porto, 2008 UEFA Cup winners Zenit St Petersburg and 2009 UEFA Cup victors Shakhtar Donetsk. That type of group would leave top seeds from any big league in the continent feeling worried, never mind APOEL, who were predicted to be the group’s ‘whipping boys’. Chelsea fans will remember the Cypriots when they earned a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge in 2009-10’s Champions League Group D.
But the Cypriot champions have not only remained undefeated in the group, they have extended their run of not conceding more than one goal to 17 European games. They began the campaign with a 2-1 victory over Zenit at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia, where they recovered from going down 1-0 on the hour to claim the three points. Two away draws then followed, 1-1 away at Shakhtar and 1-1 away atPorto.
They then hosted the latter in Cyprus, where a spectacular finish to the game occurred. Hulk had slotted home a penalty for the Portuguese champions to equalise in the 89th minute, but APOEL’s spirit continued to overcome the opposition and Gustavo Manduca scored a 90th-minute winner, sending the hordes of APOEL fanatics crazy. Then came last Wednesday’s tie in Russia, where they overcame interruptions to the match due to flares and several Zenit attacks to claim a point, sending them to the last 16 for the first time ever.
APOEL have managed to score six goals in the group stage but haven’t exhibited all-out attacking football, surprising given the fact that the side has such a heavy influence of South American talent throughout its squad. In most of the games they have adopted a fairly defensive approach, relying on hitting the opposition with counter-attacks, using strikers Ailton (who has three Champions league goals to his name) and Ivan Trickovski as their main out-ball. They heavily rely on their solid defensive partnership of Paulo Jorge and Marcos Oliveira, who have started all but one of the group stage matches so far, conceding only four goals. It is clear however, that APOEL’s team spirit is the biggest factor in their success. When a goal is scored the team celebrate as if it was a cup final, as do their passionate and vociferous home support.
Speaking after the historic 0-0 draw their Serbian manager, Ivan Jovanovic, hailed his team’s achievement. “This is a fantastic result for our team. Of course, we’re a small team compared to many European giants but we have a big heart,” he said. “We have good players who try hard every single game and they also have a great desire to achieve something really important. I think these factors have been the key to our success on the pitch.”
Jovanovic knows that if Porto and Zenit draw their last game, his side will finish as group winners regardless of their result against bottom side Shakhtar.
APOEL are the most successful Cypriot club, winning the championship 21 times, one more than rivals Omonia Nicosia. In last year’s Cypriot First Division, they finished 12 points ahead of second-placed Omonia, and a staggering 17 points away from Anorthosis Famagusta in third place.
APOEL have given the smaller teams in Europe a beacon of hope in that you do not need all the TV money and foreign owners to be successful, and also have given teams like our Old Firm a wake-up call; if APOEL can do it, they can. But we know they won’t.
You can follow Alan on Twitter @aldo1872.