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Keeper heroics deny APOEL first leg win

By Andreas Vou

APOEL were forced to settle for a goalless draw in the Champions League second round first leg against FK Vardar at the GSP Stadium on Tuesday night after being denied by a series of excellent saves from opposition goalkeeper Tome Pacovski.

The gameplan of the visitors was clear from the opening exchanges, to frustrate APOEL with a stubborn defensive display along with time-wasting at any given opportunity, and it paid off.

Pacovski, who was the standout player on the night, accurately predicted before the game that his side would have some joy if they could resist an early APOEL storm.

“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 said prior to the match.

The vocal APOEL fans, who have become somewhat accustomed to seeing their side take the game to their opponents in recent European qualifying campaigns, indeed began to grow anxious and frustrated at their side’s inability to create significant chances.

APOEL’s first decent chance came after eight minutes when a dinked cross into the box from Vinicius was controlled well by Pieros Sotiriou but the Cypriot striker was unable to generate any significant power in the shot.

Recently signed Spanish defender Iñaki Astiz stood in for the recovering Joao Guilherme at the heart of the APOEL defence but an injury to Carlao just before the break forced Guilherme into action. Dutch goalkeeper Boy Waterman, who only signed for the Cypriots last Friday, went straight into the starting eleven in place of sidelined Urko Pardo.

On 42 minutes came APOEL’s best chances of the half. A clever corner routine found another debutant, Luis Leal, free at the edge of the box but the Santomean’s strike was tipped over the bar. Then, from the very next corner, Leal again was denied by a superb low stop by Pacovski.

APOEL took a while to get in gear but came out of the traps in the second half with far more attacking intent. Some lovely combination play in the final third eventually found Leal on the edge of the penalty area but the 28-year-old’s powerful shot flew just wide of the post.

Minutes past the hour mark, more heroics from Pacovski would keep out the APOEL onslaught as Sotiriou’s goal-bound shot was thwarted by an excellent outstretched palm of the Skopjan giant, arguably his most impressive save of the night.

The league and cup holders began to pile on the pressure but lacked that spark of creativity to muster any clear chances on goal in the last half hour and the game fizzled out in the latter stages, much to the disappointment of the home faithful.

APOEL now face a nervy task when they travel to Skopje next Thursday for the return leg with the tie still very much in the balance.

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