By Andreas Vou
FOLLOWING a spirited display at the Camp Nou two weeks ago which ended in a narrow 1-0 defeat, APOEL host Ajax in the Champions League at the GSP Stadium in Nicosia on Tuesday (9.45pm), where they will be looking for a positive result against the four-time European champions.
A Gerard Pique header separated Barcelona from APOEL on Matchday 1 – the Cypriots surprised everybody with an excellent performance in which they could have earned a shock point.
In what is one of the most difficult groups of this year’s competition, Tuesday’s match against Frank de Boer’s side is seen as the Cypriots’ best chance of earning a win from Group F, which besides Barcelona, also includes moneybags Paris Saint-Germain.
With Barcelona and PSG as the group’s standout favourites to progress to the knockout stages, a win for APOEL could be of huge significance in their bid to qualify for the Europa League via third place, which was the club’s realistic goal when the draw was made.
APOEL go into the game in good form having won five of their last seven games in all competitions. As well as the defeat to Barcelona, Saturday’s league game was the other match where they failed to pick up three points when they hosted last year’s runners-up AEL – the game ending 0-0.
Looking ahead to the Ajax clash, APOEL boss Giorgos Donis feels it will be an even tougher test than against Barcelona.
“The match against Ajax will be the most difficult because, in contrast to the game against Barcelona where we were behind the ball, we will have to also attack and be good in all areas of the field,” he said.
Donis made six changes against AEL to the team which lost to Barcelona – Marios Antoniades, Stathis Aloneftis, Nuno Morais, Tiago Gomes, Tomas De Vincenti and Cillian Sheridan sat out the league fixture. All were rested other than Antoniades, who will have to fight for his place following the recent return to fitness of John Arne Riise.
De Vincenti was left out of the squad altogether against AEL, with Donis clearly unwilling to take any risks with the Argentine playmaker.
A slight injury concern ahead of Tuesday’s game is Sheridan – the Irishman has a swollen foot from a rough challenge after coming on as a second half-substitute against AEL, but early indications show he will be fit to start against Ajax.
Domestically, Ajax have recovered well from two early season defeats in August by winning their last five Eredivisie matches which puts them level on points with PSV Eindhoven and PEC Zwolle at the top of the table.
The last week has seen the Dutch champions earn three victories and score 15 goals in the process, including a 9-0 win in the cup against JOS Watergraafsmeer.
The visitors have been boosted by the inclusion of Lasse Schöne in the squad which will travel to Nicosia – the Dane scored a magnificent free-kick against Paris Saint-Germain in the group opener to earn the Dutch side a point and is an integral member of the first team.
As a precaution, Schöne was left out of Ajax’s league match over the weekend where they breezed past NAC Breda with a 5-2 away win.
However, the Amsterdam giants are taking nothing for granted against the Cypriots.
“Ajax need to be very careful of APOEL’s ground because their fans create a very fanatic and hot atmosphere for the opposing team,” said Dutch legend Johan Cruyff.
“I believe that if Ajax do not win, they will not win due to the atmosphere. APOEL have caused plenty of surprises in Europe and have become accustomed to doing so.”
APOEL won three of their five home matches in their famous 2011-12 Champions League campaign when they reached the quarter-finals, and have won twice at home in the competition this year, against HJK Helsinki and Aalborg in qualifying.
Though a powerhouse in the Netherlands, Ajax have not managed to rekindle their glory days on the continent.
They have been knocked out of the competition at the group stages in the last four seasons and have not avoided defeat in their opening two Champions League group matches so far this century.