Apoel’s hopes of reaching the Champions League group stages hang in the balance after a 1-0 defeat away at FC Viitorul in the first leg of the third qualifying round on Wednesday night.
The Romanian champions showed their threat early on when they launched a rapid counter attack, as Benzar weaved through a couple of opponents before dragging a shot just wide.
Then, just a minute later, the Romanians thought they had gone ahead when a clever one-two played Tucudean in on goal, but his effort went just wide via an intervention from goalkeeper Waterman.
Gheorghe Hagi’s side were dominating by this point, and Benzar again went close with a powerful effort. Heavy rain was falling down on the Stadionul Viitorul turf, and Apoel were just about weathering the storm.
Milanov was a serious doubt heading into the game after picking up an injury against Dudelange, but was eventually passed fit to play. It was the Bulgarian’s cross which produced a decent chance for Apoel after a period of pressure from Viitorul, but De Camargo’s shot on the turn went high and wide.
Then came Apoel’s first clear chance of the game, after some wonderful skill from Bertoglio freed him of his defender before playing De Camargo in on goal, but the Belgian’s low effort was saved by goalkeeper Rimniceanu.
Neverthless, it was Viitorul who continued to force the issue, and they again had a golden chance in first-half injury-time, as Benzar’s outswinging corner was met powerfully by centre-back Tiru, but not accurately enough as it whistled just past the post with Waterman rooted to his line.
The second half started slightly slower than the first ended, and it took until the 57th minute to see the next big chance of the game, again falling for the hosts. Chitu set up Tucudean on the edge of the box, who shot on the turn, but Waterman got down well to save.
The tempo of the game settled after an enthralling opening period, not helped either by a series of meaty challenges which saw players of both sides go into the referee’s book.
It was looking as though Apoel were going to get away with a slack performance, with Viitorul unable to sustain the pressure they had earlier in the game.
Yet the match-defining moment eventually came after a reckless foul from Merkis around 30 yards from goal. Viitorul founder and manager Hagi was renowned in his day for his thunderbolt of a left foot, so it was only fitting that the club’s first ever Champions League goal was one he would have been proud of.
Cristian Ganea lashed the ball with the outside of his left boot, pitching wide of the goal before curling into the top corner to send the home crowd into raptures.
It was a goal, and a victory, that was fully deserved for the hosts, who created the better chances and looked sharper throughout the game.
And Apoel can count themselves slightly lucky that the margin was not wider, not only for the opportunities the home side spurned earlier on, but the chance that came soon after the opener. Florinel Coman turned Merkis inside out before his shot was deflected inches over Waterman’s bar.
The Romanians were reduced to ten men when Tucudean was shown a straight red card in injury time, but it was academic to the result on the night.
The Cyprus champions now have it all to do at the GSP Stadium next Wednesday, as the Romanians showed that, despite their youth and inexperience, they are a more than a capable outfit.
Results from the Champions League Qualifying Round 3 first leg matches on Wednesday:
Celtic (Scotland) – Rosenborg Trondheim (Norway) 0-0
Nice (France) – Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) 1-1
Maribor (Slovenia) – FH (Iceland) 1-0
Hapoel Beer Sheva (Israel) – Ludogorets (Bulgaria) 2-0
Salzburg (Austria) – Rijeka (Croatia) 1-1
Dynamo Kiev (Ukraine) – Young Boys (Switzerland) 3-1
FC Astana (Kazakhstan) – Legia Warsaw (Poland) 3-1
Tuesday, July 25, first leg:
Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) – Olympiakos Piraeus (Greece) 1-3
FK Vardar (Macedonia) – FC Copenhagen (Denmark) 1-0
AEK (Greece) – CSKA Moscow (Russia) 0-2
FCSB (Romania) – Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) 2-2
Qarabag Agdam (Azerbaijan) – Sheriff Tiraspol (Moldova) 0-0
Slavia Prague (Czech Republic) – BATE Borisov (Belarus) 1-0