By Nemanja Bjedov
APOEL could only manage a goalless draw against Maribor in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round at the Ljudski Vrt Stadium on Tuesday night, with the Slovenian champions progressing upon a 1-1 aggregate score.
Despite the Cypriot champions taking the initiative from the first whistle and maintaining a 60-per cent ball possession almost throughout the match, they did not create many goal-scoring opportunities, which proved to be costly.
Paulo Sergio opted to include only one Cypriot player in his starting 11 – team captain Nektarios Alexandrou – and it was Alexandrou who was arguably the best player on the pitch in the first 45 minutes.
He had two good runs down the left wing, but the most dangerous one was in the last minute of the first half: he entered the penalty area from the right wing, then passed to the goal scorer from the first match in Nicosia – Esmael Goncalves – in the heart of the area and with Jasmin Handanovic already beaten, only for one of the home side’s defenders to block Goncalves’ poor effort.
Ante Cacic thereafter decided to defend the result from Nicosia and, apart from Marcos Tavares, all other players were almost constantly behind the ball.
The best chance for his team came in the 32nd minute when Goran Cvijanovic was released by Tavares, but his shot across Urko Pardo’s goal from the right side of the penalty area went by the post.
Nothing really changed after the interval and APOEL continued to dominate proceedings without any quality goal-scoring opportunity.
Sergio tried to pile more pressure on the home side by introducing Constantinos Charalambides and second striker Croatian Mario Budimir, but that did not really yield any results.
The Portuguese coach then sent on Efstathios Aloneftis 10 minutes before the final whistle, but the experienced winger couldn’t really make any serious impact on the match.
Five minutes before the end, Goncalves was sent off by Belarus referee Aleksei Kulbakov for a tackle that initially did not really look that dangerous; Kulbakov also sent off Sergio who protested on the sidelines.
APOEL then started pressuring their opponents as much as they possibly could in the remaining few minutes, looking for a goal that would help them advance to the next round of the Champions League, but even with Kulbakov extending the match for an additional six minutes they could not find the net.
Kulbakov himself was the centre of attention up until he blew the final whistle, as he booked APOEL’s Nuno Morais and Marcelo Oliveira, as well as Maribor’s Damjan Bohar.
The draw for both UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League play-off stages will be held this Friday at the House of European Football in Nyon, starting at 11.45am and 1pm CET respectively.