By Andreas Vou
A Gustavo Manduca penalty handed APOEL their first point of in Group F of the Champions League in an enthralling 1-1 draw against Ajax at the GSP Stadium on Tuesday night.
The Cypriot champions had their fair share of chances to grab all three points but so did the Dutch champions and a point a piece was a justified result.
Giorgos Donis surprisingly left Argentine playmaker Tomas De Vincenti out of the starting eleven, instead preferring to go with 34-year-old Manduca, one of the key players from APOEL’s famous 2011-2012 campaign
Summer signing John Arne Riise, despite playing in APOEL’s last two league games was also left out as he was deemed unfit to make the squad. Marios Antoniades, who played the full 90 minutes against FC Barcelona replaced the Norwegian in the lineup.
APOEL have demonstrated weaknesses on their defensive flanks in Champions League qualifying and were again guilty of some slack defending in the early parts.
Dutch legend Johan Cruyff spoke before the game about the impact that APOEL’s atmosphere could cause for Ajax. However, the Cypriot fans were subdued at the start of the game due to Ajax’s blistering start.
Frank de Boer’s side created a golden chance after just two minutes; Antoniades was guilty of affording far too much space on the wing for Davy Klaassen. The young Dutchman picked out the unmarked Kolbeinn Sigthorsson in the box but the striker screwed his shot wide.
Ajax’s early pressure eventually told. Lucas Andersen was on hand to stroke home into an empty net on 27 minutes after APOEL keeper Urko Pardo had done well to deny the initial effort on goal, it was the first goal that the Cypriots had conceded at home this season.
The goal gave APOEL the push they needed to attack. The subdued home faithful were soon in full voice just minutes later as APOEL were awarded a penalty for a hand ball by Ricardo van Rhijn.
Manduca scored four goals in APOEL’s last Champions League campaign and stepped up to calmly convert the ball past Dutch international keeper Jasper Cillessen.
And just three minutes before the break, APOEL came agonisingly close to going into the break with a 2-1 lead. Manduca raced in behind the Ajax defence before crossing towards Cillian Sheridan, but the Irishman was just inches away from getting a toe to it.
APOEL’s best chance came just shy of the hour mark as Sheridan, unmarked on the edge of the six-yard box, headed past the post with the goal gaping.
It was not to be Sheridan’s night as, shortly after, a long punt up field from Urko went through to the Irishman who was taken out by Cillessen. The referee deemed that it was not a clear goalscoring opportunity with Ajax having a covering defender racing towards the line.
APOEL continued to force the issue with Mario Sergio having a good effort saved by Cillessen on 70 minutes but Ajax also came close to grabbing the win.
Like Sheridan for APOEL, Sigthrsson simply could not find the net despite having a number of quality chances falling at his feet. And though APOEL will be left ruing those missed efforts by Sheridan, they will also leave grateful as Ajax spurned a gilt-edged chance in injury time – Thulani Serero nipped in front of the APOEL defenders after a mix-up but drilled his effort wide with the goal at his mercy.
Though a draw may not be enough for APOEL to have a realistic chance of reaching the knock-out rounds, APOEL once again showed that they do not look out of place in Europe’s elite competition.