By Andreas Vou
APOEL travel to Denmark to take on FC Midtjylland in Champions League third-round qualifying on Tuesday (8pm), a week after an unconvincing performance which almost saw the Cyprus champions prematurely knocked out of the competition.
Due to recent successful campaigns in the Champions League, a fair amount of expectation now rests on the shoulders of the APOEL squad and they therefore need to make amends for their poor showing in the previous tie.
Last week’s second leg against Macedonia’s FK Vardar saw APOEL need a second half-strike from Tomas De Vincenti to get them through on the away goals rule after an injury-time leveller from the home side set Cypriot nerves racing. Despite progressing, a fair amount of skepticism looms over some of the new recruits and the manager after the two matches against Vardar.
The trip to Midtjylland will prove a stern test for APOEL with the Danish side going into the tie in good form. Jess Thorup’s men have won their last five competitive matches in a row, including a hard fought 2-1 away win over Sønderjyske on Friday in the domestic league.
APOEL press officer Nektarios Petevinos feels that Tuesday’s opponents are a largely inexperienced outfit on the continent but stressed that they are nevertheless a force to be reckoned with.
“It is a young team lacking European experience. What APOEL must take into account is that they are up against the Danish champions. They compete in a tough league. Playing away from home, we want to achieve a result which will give us a good marker to qualify.”
APOEL manager Domingos Paciencia was keen to reiterate to the media that the APOEL squad had been together for less than a month, and that the group still needed time to gel. The former Europa League finalist with Braga arranged a friendly with Ermis last Thursday in order for the team to get more match practice and to try and experiment with some new tactics.
APOEL will be without full-back Marios Antoniades due to injury; Paciencia has ex-Manchester United youngster Nicholas Ioannou and long-serving Nektarios Alexandrou to choose from. Midfield linchpin Nuno Morais will return to his favoured position after filling in for the injured Carlao last week, with the Brazilian returning to fitness and expected to feature from the start on Tuesday.
The danger men that the APOEL defenders will have to be on their toes for are 20-year-old Pione Sisto and the experienced Morten Rasmussen. The Ugandan-born youngster, Sisto, has made quite a name for himself in Danish football since breaking onto the scene, being voted the league’s best player in 2014 and recently earning his first international caps with his adopted nation, scoring four in his first four games, attracting interest from a number of top European clubs as a result.
Thirty-year-old Rasmussen is a reliable centre-forward with a knack for popping up with important goals, demonstrated both in the second-round first leg against Lincoln Red Imps where he scored the game’s only goal as well last Friday’s late winner against Sønderjyske.
APOEL have positive recent memories of facing Danish opposition. Just under 12 months ago they took on Aalborg in the Champions League playoff round, first drawing 1-1 away before a resounding 4-1 win in Nicosia to seal their passage into the group stages.
However, Tuesday’s task bears new and unique challenges for an APOEL team that have a point to prove following a poor showing in the previous round, and a positive result will be of the highest order.