By Andreas Vou
FOLLOWING last week’s impressive results in their first-leg matches of the UEFA Champions League third qualifying round, AEL and APOEL stand on the brink of another famous achievement in the history of Cypriot clubs in Europe.
AEL’s surprise 1-0 win over Zenit St. Petersburg coupled with APOEL’s second-half fightback to earn a 2-2 away draw against HJK Helsinki leaves both Cypriot sides just a favourable result away from securing a minimum of six European matches for the coming season.
The Limassol club were handed the toughest tie of the third round when they were pitted Andre Villas-Boas’ Zenit and few gave Ivaylo Petev’s side any hope prior to kick-off. However, a solitary goal from new signing Lukasz Gikiewicz just after the hour mark handed AEL a narrow lead to defend in Russia. Zenit will be without key midfielder Axel Witsel for the second-leg following his straight red card in Cyprus.
Zenit have a dismal record against Cypriot clubs – their two previous meetings against Cypriot opposition came in the 2011/12 season against APOEL where they lost 2-1 in Nicosia and drew 0-0 in St. Petersburg.
AEL’s press officer Ploutis Avraam claims his team goes into the second leg with no fear and with confidence of pulling off what he described would be a ‘miracle’.
“All the players, with added confidence, will travel to St. Petersburg with the aim of getting a result to qualify. It will be a footballing miracle if we achieve it, but we believe it. Zenit do not strike fear as they did in the first game, which is why we travel with confidence and belief.”
Former Chelsea and Tottenham manager Villas-Boas admitted his side faces a tough battle to overturn the 1-0 deficit, saying: “AEL are tough opponents, something which was evident in Cyprus. They will do everything to stop us.”
APOEL have put themselves in a really good position after rallying back from a two-goal first-half deficit to earn a vital 2-2 draw. Their Champions League hopes looked to be slipping away after Demba Savage’s brace but two goals in four minutes late in the second period from Tomas De Vincenti and Cilian Sheridan respectively has swung the tie in their favour.
Cypriot clubs have faced Finnish opposition on seven previous occasions – three of those have resulted in wins as well as two draws and two defeats. Helsinki, against Cypriot opposition, have won twice and lost twice while last week’s match against APOEL is their only draw to date.
Both teams have their sights firmly set on the Champions League group stages but the fact that qualification to the next round guarantees at least Europa League football next season is also a huge incentive going into Wednesday night’s clashes.