By Andreas Vou
APOEL kick off their Champions League campaign in the second qualifying round by hosting FK Vardar in the first leg of their clash at the GSP Stadium on Tuesday (8pm).
No longer one of the minnows of the competition, APOEL are now rightfully regarded as one of the strongest sides in the Champions League qualification phase having reached the group stages of Europe’s elite club competition three times in the last six seasons, which included reaching the quarter-finals in the 2011-12 season.
The Cyprus champions go into the two-legged tie against the Macedonians as favourites due to their exploits in recent years and will look to start off with a positive result in front of a boisterous crowd in Nicosia.
Aiming to stop the expected APOEL onslaught will be Vardar goalkeeper Tome Pacovski who, in an interview published on his club’s official website, believes that the early exchanges of tonight’s match will be of huge importance.
“The first 15 to 20 minutes will be difficult for us, especially for our defence. However, if we start well, the opponent could get anxious as time goes on.”
The 33-year-old keeper has done his homework on the Nicosia giants’ recent success in Europe but believes his side are capable of pulling off a surprise.
“APOEL are an experienced team which has had good runs in the Champions League in recent years but ourside has the quality to deal with them and to get through to the next round,” he concluded.
Someone who knows both clubs well is Ivan Trickovski, who began his career at Vardar and then went on to represent APOEL from 2010-2012, featuring in all but one of the games in that famous 2011-12 campaign when the Cypriots reached the last eight.
Speaking to the media in his homeland, Trickovski was keen to warn his fellow Macedonians that Vardar face a mountainous task against APOEL.
“There can be no comparisons between Vardar and APOEL because, in Nicosia, bigger teams than Vardar have fallen victim,” said the current Al-Nasr player, before warning that Vardar “cannot relax even for a minute”.
As far as team news goes, APOEL will be without star goalkeeper Urko Pardo whose injury at the back end of last season will see him out of action at least until December. Another absentee from the usual defensive line will be Joao Guilherme and talk in the Cypriot press suggests that midfielder Nuno Morais could drop in to fill the void in the heart of the defence.
New manager Domingos Paciencia will be taking charge of his first competitive match as APOEL boss since getting the job at the end of May and must surely be aware of the pressure the position entails. The Portuguese boss takes over from Thorsten Fink who failed to convince the APOEL board and was relieved of his duties before the season ended, despite being top of the table at the time of his dismissal.
APOEL have a strong home record in the preliminary phase of the Champions League, winning eight of their last ten and having not lost a qualifier at the GSP since a 2-3 loss at the hands of AEK Athens back in 2002.