AEL sealed a famous 1-0 win over Russian giants Zenit St Petersburg on Wednesday night in the first leg of their Champions League third qualifying round tie, while Cyprus champions APOEL fought back from a 2-0 half-time deficit to draw 2-2 away at HJK Helsinki.
Limassol side AEL hosted the game at Anorthosis Famagusta’s Antonis Papadopoulos Stadium in Larnaca as their own Tsirion stadium has been deemed unsuitable to host high-profile European games by UEFA.
AEL were handed the toughest possible draw against Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit squad, which includes the likes of Brazilian forward Hulk, former Arsenal midfielder Andrey Arshavn, as well as Belgian international Axel Witsel, but went home in jubilant mood after Lukasz Gikiewicz scored the only goal of the game after 64 minutes.
Zenit must be sick of the sight of Cypriot teams, having been on the end of a 2-1 defeat by APOEL the last time they arrived in Cyprus in 2011.
AEL have never reached the group stage of the Champions League before although they came close back in 2012 when they conceded two goals to Anderlecht in the final ten minutes to exit the playoffs and drop into the Europa League.
APOEL meanwhile will sleep much easier after Cillian Sheridan capped a memorable second-half fightback with the equaliser in the 74th minute after their Finnish opponents had a man sent off early in the second period
Before the match in Helsinki, APOEL skipper Constantinos Charalambides, who was part of the APOEL sides that reached the group stages in 2009 and quarter-final in 2012, said the Cypriot champions were the favourites although they were taking nothing for granted.
“We want to score in Helsinki and to secure a positive result ahead of the second leg in Nicosia,” said the Cypriot international. “We are the favourites but that means absolutely nothing. We need to show who we are on the pitch. We have big ambitions for the Champions League but we are only focused on this tie for now.”