By Andreas Vou
In one of the most eagerly-anticipated games in the history of Cypriot football, APOEL host FC Barcelona at the GSP Stadium for Matchday Five of the Champions League.
The issues of foreclosures, privatisations and breach of its exclusive economic zone are temporarily put aside as the arrival of Lionel Messi and co. takes over as the most-talked about topic on the island.
While Barcelona are strong favourites, APOEL will take the first meeting between the two sides in the opening group game as the blueprint for Tuesday’s match, where they narrowly lost out by a 1-0 scoreline. The Cypriot champions defended astutely against one of the best forward lines in the game and created good chances to grab an equaliser right up until the last minute, only to be stopped by Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Barcelona goal.
Another narrow defeat to Paris Saint-Germain in APOEL’s last Champions League match made it mathematically impossible for them to reach the next round of the competition but still hold hopes of finishing third in the group which would see them progress to the knockout phase of the Europa League.
Giorgos Donis’ men currently lie bottom of Group F, one point behind Ajax who they will face in the final group match on December 10 in the Dutch capital. Therefore, a positive result for either side on Matchday 5 could make a significant difference ahead of the last match of the group.
“It’s the biggest game of the year,” APOEL forward Gustavo Manduca told Balla.
“We must try to enjoy it alongside our fans. We know that we must work hard, run a lot and be very organised. But ok, it’s just one game with three points at stake and we will try cause a surprise and gain points from this match.”
APOEL welcome back left-back Marios Antoniades who missed the trip to Paris through injury but are sweating over the fitness of midfielder Vinicius who was forced off just after the hour mark of Friday’s 0-0 draw with Apollon.
Barcelona, despite their superb start to the league campaign which saw them win seven of their first eight games without conceding a goal, have come under heavy criticism after two recent consecutive defeats which has seen them slip to second place, two points behind arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Three straight wins since those defeats have begun to ease the pressure on the new manager while Lionel Messi geared up for Tuesday’s game with a hat-trick in Saturday’s 5-1 thrashing of Sevilla. With his three goals over the weekend, the Argentine becomes the Spanish league’s all-time top scorer, surpassing the great Telmo Zarra who scored 251 goals before retiring in 1955.
Following his record-breaking goal, APOEL keeper Urko Pardo had a message for his former Barcelona B colleague via his Twitter account.
“Congratulations Leo for this new record. Like myself, any fan of good football would be delighted for you. See you on Tuesday night.”
There will be no shortage of motivation for Barcelona either, as they must win to keep their hopes of winning the group alive. Enrique’s side are currently one point behind PSG, who host Ajax at the Parc des Princes. Failure to beat APOEL, coupled with a win for the Parisians, will rule out any chance of Barcelona finishing top of the group.
For APOEL, the objective remains the same – Donis’ disciplined and organised approach will aim to keep Barcelona at bay for as long as possible and pick its moments to strike on the counter, though Tuesday’s challenge will be like no other that his side have faced.