By Andreas Vou
APOEL are on course to reach the Champions League group stage but still have work to do to finish off the job when they host Aalborg in the second leg of their playoff in Nicosia on Tuesday (9.45pm), five years to the day since they defeated Danish opponents to reach Europe’s top club competition for the first time.
The Cyprus champions hold a narrow advantage following last week’s 1-1 draw in Denmark thanks to a crucial away goal from Vinicius early in the second half which cancelled out Nicolaj Thomsen’s early strike.
While slight favourites to progress, Giorgos Donis’ men know that qualification is not a foregone conclusion after last week’s unimpressive display. The Danes outplayed APOEL for large parts of the game and only a lack of composure in front of goal prevented Aalborg from putting the tie out of sight.
A score draw away from home is traditionally a favourable result for a team to carry into a second leg but, for APOEL, 1-1 has proven to be a cursed scoreline. The last three first leg 1-1 draws the Nicosia side managed away from home in European knockout ties have all resulted in elimination – in 2012 in the Europa League playoff against Neftchi Baku and last season against Maribor in the Champions League third qualifying round. The defeat against Maribor saw them drop into the Europa League where they suffered the same fate against Zulte Waregem but still entered the groups thanks to a lucky draw after Fenerbahce were disqualified due to a match-fixing case.
The scoreline does not instill confidence but if APOEL need to refer to history as a motivator then they do not need to look too far back. Tuesday marks exactly five years to the day when APOEL first qualified for the Champions League groups, and that was against Danish opponents FC Copenhagen, as they overturned a 1-0 deficit from the first leg to win 3-1 in Nicosia.
APOEL then went on to become the most successful Cypriot side in European competition, qualifying again for the group stage and going on to reach the last eight in 2012 and qualifying, albeit by default, for the Europa League groups last season.
Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday’s match, they are again guaranteed to enter the group stages of a European competition this season, as the loser of the playoff round automatically drops into the Europa League groups, something which the manager alluded to.
“It is important for us that the we sealed (qualification to) the Europa League from the last round and now we have the chance in a packed stadium to chase qualification and achieve something great, to enter the Champions League groups,” said Donis.
APOEL are left a little short in attacking options as new signing Raffik Djebour has yet to reach full fitness while the same can also be said about Stathis Aloneftis, Giorgos Efrem and Gustavo Manduca. All made the 23-man squad but it remains to be seen how much of a part they will play.