Apoel’s continental adventure continues on Thursday as they host Anderlecht in the first leg of their Europa League last-16 tie at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia.
After knocking out Basque powerhouse Athletic Bilbao in the previous round thanks to a 2-0 win in the capital a fortnight ago, the stage is set for another famous night for the Cyprus champions.
Given the side’s displays throughout the campaign against some top European names, there is now genuine optimism that the Apoel fairytale can go a step further, demonstrated by the fact that all but 1,000 (of 21.500) tickets for the match had been sold by Wednesday evening.
Perhaps the only negative from that heroic win over Bilbao at the GSP is that the man who scored the opener that night picked up two yellow cards which means he will miss the first leg against Anderlecht through suspension.
Pieros Sotiriou, who has morphed into a talismanic figure in this year’s campaign, with crucial goals against Young Boys, Olympiacos and Bilbao, will miss out after being sent off against the Basques last time out.
Manager Thomas Christiansen will therefore choose Igor de Camargo to lead the line with David Barral playing just behind him.
Midfield engine Vinicius will also miss the game, as he has been unable to take part in full training sessions since injuring his ankle in the previous round against Bilbao. His place will be taken by either Kostakis Artymatas or winter signing Embezilio. Despite training with rest of the team in the past couple of days, Argentinian midfielder Facundo Bertoglio was excluded from the squad as he was not deemed match fit by Apoel’s manager.
Despite this Christiansen said that he has “full faith in the players that will replace both Pieros and Vini. We have a quality squad.”
He also stressed the importance of keeping a clean sheet in Nicosia: “We want to go to Belgium without conceding. It will not be easy against such a quality team and my players need to be aggressive and disciplined throughout the 90 minutes,” he added.
Anderlecht are not without problems of their own, as key defender Kara Mbodji will miss out through injury and is also unlikely to return in time for the second leg.
January signing Adrien Trebel will be unavailable for selection having featured in the competition with Standard Liege.
As is often the case in European football, Apoel are considered the underdogs going into the two-legged affair but their form, especially at home, gives reason for optimism.
Apoel have won all four of their games at the GSP in the Europa League this campaign, against Astana (2-1), Young Boys (1-0), Olympiacos (2-0) and Athletic (2-0).
Anderlecht have been solid away from home, drawing twice against tough opposition in Saint-Etienne and Mainz and defeating Qabala 3-1 in Azerbaijan. Their only away defeat came in the last round in a 3-1 loss at Zenit St. Petersburg, though it was arguably the sweetest result of the lot as their last minute strike sealed their progression to the last-16 on away goals.
Speaking at his pre-match press conference, Anderlecht coach Rene Weiler was quietly confident.
“We want to qualify for the quarter-finals and we’re here to get a good result so we can hopefully finish the job in Belgium,” he said.
“Apoel are a very strong team and we have to be careful, especially in the first 15 minutes. My players have enough experience not to be affected by the hostile atmosphere at the GSP Stadium.”
As far as recent form goes, Apoel go into the tie on the back of a morale-boosting 2-1 win over arch-rivals Omonia last weekend courtesy of penalties from Sotiriou and Barral to open up a four-point lead at the summit of the table.
Anderlecht, on the other hand, suffered a disappointing 3-2 defeat at Mechelen which means they remain level in top spot with Club Brugge, who also lost.
Tickets have been selling thick and fast over the past week for the hotly-anticipated encounter. By Wednesday, 19,000 tickets had been sold, some 4,000 more than for the game against Bilbao.
The match kicks off at 8pm Cyprus time and Apoel will be hoping that the fans can push them towards a positive result to put them in an advantageous position going into the second leg.