By Andreas Vou
THE Cyprus national team face the biggest challenge of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign so far as they travel to take on group favourites Belgium on Saturday (9.45pm) with a host of senior absentees.
Cyprus have started their campaign brightly, with two wins from four matches and currently sit in third place, one point above the Red Devils in Group B, though the Belgians have played one match less.
Manager Pambos Christodoulou has inspired new life into a previously depleted national team and will be looking for another brave performance when they take on a much-fancied Belgium team at the Stade Roi Baudouin in Brussels.
Having already recorded wins against Bosnia and Andorra, spirits are high in the Cypriot camp.
A restructuring of the qualification process will see two sides automatically reach the Euro 2016 finals while third place, which Cyprus currently occupy, will enter a playoff round, giving the island an outside chance of earning a first ever major tournament appearance.
Heading into Saturday’s encounter, Christodoulou has added a number of new faces to the squad with a host of established senior squad members ruled out through injury.
Giorgos Efrem and Demetris Christofi who have scored three each so far in qualifying are out, as too are Stathis Aloneftis, Antonis Georgallides, Dossa Junior, Jason Demetriou and Nektarios Alexandrou.
Goalkeepers Andreas Kittos and Constantinos Panagi of Ayia Napa and Omonia respectively have earned their first senior call-ups, as too has AEK Larnaca’s Nikos Englezou.
The surprise inclusion, however, is 17-year-old Grigoris Kastanos, who is plying his trade for Italian giants Juventus after joining from Paralimni in late 2013.
In the final training session in Cyprus on Wednesday, before setting off for Belgium, the focus was very much on defence and tactical organisation, fully aware of the threat their opponents pose.
The Cypriot defence will have their hands full trying to contain Chelsea’s Eden Hazard while, at the other end, scoring may prove to be an even tougher task with Hazard’s club colleague Thibaut Courtois in goal.
Everton striker Romelu Lukaku will miss both of Belgium’s upcoming internationals after suffering an injury last weekend against Queens Park Rangers. However, the hosts have been boosted by Christian Benteke’s return to training on Wednesday.
Belgium are seen as one of the emerging forces of the international game with the majority of their squad competing in Europe’s top leagues.
Marc Wilmots’ young side impressed in last summer’s World Cup, winning all three group games before eventually falling to finalists Argentina in the quarter-finals.
Belgium have not lost a competitive home match since suffering a 0-1 defeat to Germany back in September 2010, meaning Cyprus face an almighty challenge come Saturday.