By Andreas Vou
THERE were mixed fates for Cyprus’ two Champions League representatives in the third qualifying round on Thursday night as APOEL sealed their passage to the play-off with a comfortable 2-0 win over HJK Helsinki while AEL were unable to hold on to their narrow first-leg win against Zenit St. Petersburg, going down to a 3-0 defeat.
Following their 1-0 win against Russian giants Zenit just over a week ago, AEL had their eyes firmly set on pulling off the shock of the round on their visit to the Petrovsky Stadium.
AEL’s game plan to sit back and hit the hosts on the break was evident from the off, and it was working well in the early exchanges. It took Zenit 19 minutes to muster a presentable chance, one which fell to Salomon Rondon who was handed a golden opportunity, but the Venezualan aimed his header wide from the edge of the six yard box.
On 26 minutes, AEL’s challenge got even tougher as Danielzinho, booked just moments earlier for simulation, was shown a second yellow card for blocking the taking of a quick Zenit free-kick.
The extra man proved decisive – 10 minutes into the second half, from an almost identical chance to the one he spurned in the first, Rondon headed home to level the tie.
It was one-way traffic from then on. AEL defended valiantly but Zenit continued their surge on Karim Fegrouch’s goal.
With just two minutes left and extra-time beckoning, Rondon was again denied from a close-range header but Danny was on hand to tap in to an open net for 2-0. Aleksandr Kerzhakov then made it 3-0 in injury time from the spot to seal qualification for the Russians.
APOEL, following their 2-2 draw in Helsinki, could have taken a passive approach but instead took the game to the visitors and got their reward. The two goalscorers from the first-leg combined to devastating effect to hand the Nicosia giants the perfect start. After just 18 minutes, Tomas de Vincenti made a key dispossession in the centre of the field before threading a perfect through ball to Cilian Sheridan, who took one touch with his right foot to compose himself before thrashing the ball into the corner of the net with his left.
Just as Helsinki did in the first-leg, APOEL were given a penalty on the stroke of half-time which De Vincenti converted to make it 2-0. There would be no second-half fightback, however, from the Finns and APOEL held on to earn their place in Friday’s Champions League play-off draw.
The win guarantees that APOEL will feature in the group stages of European competition for the fourth time in six years, as even if they were to suffer defeat in the play-off round, they would go directly into the Europa League groups.
Not all is lost for AEL either, as they enter the Europa League play-off round where they will aim to enter the group stages of the competition as they did in the 2012-13 season.