By Nemanja Bjedov
APOEL take on NK Maribor of Slovenia in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie on Wednesday night, in what should draw a sell-out crowd to the GSP Stadium in Nicosia with the kick-off set for 8pm.
The Cyprus champions have reached the group stage of Europe’s elite club competition twice in the last four seasons, including a fairytale run in 2011-2012 when they remarkably reached the quarter-finals where they were eliminated by mighty Real Madrid.
Slovenian title holders Maribor will not represent a walk in the park for APOEL since they have started their national championship with three consecutive wins and eliminated Maltese side Birkirkara FC in the second qualifying round without conceding a single goal.
“It is dangerous to single out favourites,” APOEL defender Marios Ilia told UEFA’s official website. “The gap between the so-called bigger and smaller teams has shrunk and that is why we have seen so many upsets the last few seasons, not only recently involving Cypriot teams, but also with other clubs such as BATE Borisov.
“Nowadays you need to be on top of your game to beat your opponent. We want a positive result and one that will stand us in good stead ahead of the return game in Slovenia,” he said.
“However, doing that won’t be easy.”
Last season, APOEL failed to reach the group stage of the Europa League after suffering a 4-2 aggregate loss to Azerbaijani outfit Neftchi Baku in the playoff round. However, the Nicosia giants went on to claim their 22nd national league crown. Nevertheless, the club have gone through many changes over the summer with Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic, who brought five trophies to the club including four league titles during his two spells, being replaced by Paulo Sergio in the dugout.
“It should be pointed out to our fans that this will be our first official match of the season. Without any doubt it could prove to be the most important one as well. We are all aware that we need to get a good result at home in order to better our chances of qualifying for the playoff round,” APOEL vice captain Constantinos Charalambides said.
“We are a new team with a new coach who is a workaholic and very technical. I think we have had an excellent preparation period, but the best way to evaluate that will be by our performance against Maribor,” he added.
The Slovenian champions dismantled Luka Koper 6-1 on Saturday in the third round of their national championship and they arrive in Cyprus confident that they can get a positive result before the second leg next Tuesday in Maribor.
“We have been focusing solely on APOEL recently,” said Maribor coach Ante Cacic. “We watched some of their matches and I believe that we have identified what needs to be done in order to avoid any surprises,” he added.
“We want to return home with a good result, in order to have a decent chance of advancing into the next round in front of our loyal supporters.
“However, we need to take it one step at a time and we will see,” Cacic concluded.