Apoel’s Champions League group campaign begins on Wednesday on the biggest possible stage, at the home of 12-time winners and current holders Real Madrid (9.45pm).
After a hectic start to their qualifying campaign, which saw manager Mario Been get the sack just three months into the job, the Cyprus champions bounced back under the returning Giorgos Donis to reach Europe’s elite club competition once again.
Donis was previously in charge the last time the team got to the Champions League group stage, in the 2014/15 campaign, where they finished bottom of a group that contained Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain and Ajax. Their task is not any easier this time around as they have been pitted with Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Tottenham Hotspur in Group H.
Yet despite the modest stature of the club, Apoel are no longer rookies on the continent, with this being their seventh time in the group stages of European competition in the last nine years, and their fourth in the Champions League.
For Wednesday’s game, Donis will be without one of his most important players in winger Giorgos Efrem due to injury, but now has options after the arrivals of Ghayas Zahid and Roland Sallai. The new boys were handed debuts in Apoel’s league opener at Nea Salamina on Saturday where they won 4-1, and Sallai netted the equaliser.
Zhivko Milanov and Facundo Bertoglio have not travelled due to injury.
Though heavy favourites going into the game, Real’s recent league form has caused some concern. After emphatically beating rivals Barca 5-1 on aggregate in the Spanish Super Cup and starting the league campaign with a 3-0 win at Deportivo La Coruna, their last two games have ended in home draws with Valencia (2-2) and Levante (1-1).
Saturday’s draw against the newly-promoted side saw manager Zinedine Zidane rest Luka Modric, Keylor Navas and Raphael Varane, and bench Gareth Bale, Isco and Casemiro, a risk which backfired.
The big names are more than likely to return to the line-up on Wednesday but usual starting striker Karim Benzema picked up an injury against Levante which rules him out and 21-year-old sensation Marco Asensio is a doubt.
It will be the third time out of their four Champions League campaigns that Apoel start in Spain. Their very first group game was a visit to Madrid to face Atletico where they managed a creditable 0-0 draw in 2009. In September 2014, Donis’ side went to the Camp Nou to face Barca and again put in a brave performance, losing by just one goal.
The Nicosia side played Real Madrid in their memorable 2011/12 campaign, where they met in the quarter-finals of the competition, with the Spaniards winning 5-2 at the Bernabeu following a 3-0 win in Cyprus.
Apoel have yet to win a Champions League match away from home beyond the qualifying campaign in eleven attempts – in their nine group games on the road they have drawn five and lost four.
As far as home records in the competition go, few come better than Madrid’s. In the last five campaigns, they have won 26, drawn five and lost just once in front of their own fans.
An eager home crowd in excess of 70,000 is expected on Wednesday, as well as a healthy contingent of Apoel fans who notoriously travel in their numbers to support their side. The team will need them more than ever against the reigning European champions.