Apoel are through to the group stages of the Champions League after they kept Slavia Prague at bay on Wednesday night, preserving their 2-0 advantage from the first leg.
There was nothing pretty about the Cyprus champions’ display at the Eden Arena but a pragmatic, disciplined performance prevented any serious threat of a turnaround from the hosts.
It is now the fourth time in their history that Apoel have made it into the group stages of the continent’s top club competition, and the seventh time in nine years competing in either the Champions League or Europa League proper.
In last week’s encounter, Apoel shocked Slavia with a goal after just two minutes from a corner, but the Cypriots were almost undone in the same manner this time around.
Just a few minutes in, Michal Frydrych headed towards goal from a corner which forced Boy Waterman into a save. It was a warning sign for Apoel that the 2-0 first-leg lead could not be taken for granted.
Apoel finally managed to break out of their own half on ten minutes with a quick counter and almost got a precious away goal. Lorenzo Ebecilio wriggled past his marker and fed the ball on to Igor de Camargo but the striker blazed his effort well over the bar.
The visitors’ game plan was clear, to sit deep and avoid letting in an early goal, which they were pulling off to a tee. Giorgos Donis’ men, despite not having much of the ball, managed to frustrate their opponents with their disciplined display early on and made sure of eating up valuable seconds and slowing the rhythm of the game.
Slavia continued to probe and came close via a long-distance effort from Miroslav Stoch. The Slovakian’s strike from the edge of the box had Waterman beaten but the effort went just wide of the post.
Just before the break came the home side’s best chance. Slavia had high hopes at the start of the campaign due to some big name arrivals, and none were bigger than Portuguese winger Danny. Stoch’s cross found the former Zenit St. Petersburg man at the back post but he ended up firing his attempt well over the bar as frustrations from the home crowd increased.
Those frustrations were soon to step up a notch as the same player, at the start of the second half, lashed an effort over the bar in similar fashion from an even closer distance.
Slavia continued to dominate the game in terms of possession and chances on goal but Apoel rarely looked at serious risk of being breached. A combination of stubborn defensive discipline from Donis’ men combined with a lack of cohesion on Slavia’s part saw the second half fizzle out with little serious threat for the visitors.
There was one more decent chance late on for Slavia as Jaromir Zmrhal drilled a left-footed strike towards the near post but Waterman was equal to it with a full-stretch save.
Apoel return to Europe’s elite competition after a two-season absence, again under the guidance of Donis. The rather drastic decision to sack Mario Been after the first leg of the third qualifying round this summer has turned out paying dividends.
Donis and co. will find out who they will face in the group stages during Thursday’s draw (7pm).