Apollon, AEL and AEK all picked up important first-leg wins in the Europa League second round on Thursday night.
Lack of fitness and team cohesion is often the biggest concern going into the European qualifiers at such an early stage of the campaign, but there looked to be no such worry for Apollon as they raced to a 3-0 lead in the first 45 minutes against Moldovan side FC Zaria.
Andre Schembri, making his debut up front, made an instant impact by putting his new side 1-0 ahead after just ten minutes. A corner from Joao Pedro was headed goalwards, and despite the keeper making a decent low stop, he was helpless to prevent the Maltese forward from converting on the rebound.
They then got the chance to double their lead on 21 minutes, as a cross from the right flank was clearly blocked by an elevated outstretched arm. Alex Da Silva stepped up and struck accurately into the bottom corner for 2-0.
And before half an hour of play had elapsed, Joao Pedro made it 3-0 for Apollon, as the skillful Portuguese midfielder cut on to his less favoured left foot before sweeping the ball into the far corner.
The tempo of the game dipped in the second period, and the hosts preferred to keep things tight to avoid conceding an away goal rather than push for a fourth, as they held on to their 3-0 lead until the end.
Kicking off slightly later were Apollon’s Limassol rivals AEL away at FC Progres Niedercorn. Despite being Luxembourg’s fourth placed side last campaign, they were not to be taken lightly after their heroic 2-1 aggregate victory over Rangers in the opening round.
AEL were beginning to realise why the Scottish struggled so badly, as they were unable to assert their dominance in the early exchanges as they did in the last round, where they defeated St. Joseph’s of Gibraltar 10-0 on aggregate.
The visitors, however, took more risks in the second period in pursuit of that vital away goal and eventually got their reward on 66 minutes, when Mikel Arruabarrena slid in a low cross to make it 0-1. The same player then came close to doubling his side’s lead with a header that hit the crossbar. Nevertheless, AEL held on for an important win.
AEK, with arguably the toughest task of the three away at Cork City, managed a hard-fought 0-1 win. Joan Truyols grabbed the only goal of the game following a scramble in the area in the 70th minute.