By Andreas Vou
APOEL sealed European group stage football for the coming season by the skin of their teeth, scraping past Danish champions Midtjylland via the away goals rule despite a 1-0 defeat in Nicosia on Tuesday night which left the aggregate score tied at 2-2.
With two away goals in hand, sweltering Nicosia heat and the boisterous backing of the GSP crowd, the odds of qualification looked heavily stacked in the favour of APOEL but Midtjylland had other ideas.
A rash sliding tackle by Mario Sergio brought the game’s first free-kick. A perfect inswinging cross between defence and goalkeeper was met by the head of Erik Sviatchenko to give the visitors a dream start and instill nerves into the Cyprus champions.
Scottish referee Robert Madden had already aggravated the home faithful with a few contentious calls early on but his decision to hand a straight red card to midfielder Vinicius on 29 minutes for a strong challenge on Pione Sisto saw the crowd erupt into a deafening noise of whistles.
Manager Domingos Paciencia made one change to last week’s line-up, handing Mateusz Piatkowski his first start for the club in place of Brazilian winger Vander and it was the Polish forward who managed APOEL’s best attempt in the first half with a curling left-foot effort which went inches wide of the far post.
Sisto is said to be wanted by a host of top European clubs and it was obvious to see why as the 20-year-old caused havoc for the APOEL defence.
APOEL simply could not gain a foothold in the game and, in first-half stoppage time, came mightily close to conceding a second as the ever-dangerous Sisto had an effort go just wide of the post.
Midtjylland threatened early in the second half with a low shot from Petter Andersson, saved comfortably by Boy Waterman.
Vander was brought on at the start of the second period and began to add his creative spark, with APOEL managing to sustain more possession in the opposition half.
The referee was making no new friends in the Cypriot capital as APOEL had a strong penalty shout denied. Tomas De Vincenti looked to have broken clear of his man with a smart dip of the shoulder but the Scottish official saw nothing wrong with what appeared to be a blatant bodycheck on the Argentine.
An incisive counter-attack on 78 minutes saw APOEL almost find an equaliser, as Constantinos Makrides played Luis Leal into space down the right channel. Vander was eagerly waiting unmarked at the far post but Sisto was there to cut out Leal’s cross.
From the resulting throw-in came another good chance, as Vander’s cross found Leal at the near post but the striker, who had a disappointing evening, could only steer the shot wide of the goal.
At the other end, Sisto again proved threatening, as Waterman could only sit and watch the youngster’s rasping effort sail just wide.
It was very much heart-in-mouth stuff in the closing stages. Paciencia brought on Cypriot defender Kostakis Artymatas for Leal in a bid to sure up the backline as Midtjylland threw all they had into the box.
While it had been the most unwelcome of noises throughout the game, the referee’s whistle was finally greeted with rapturous cheers as he brought an end to a difficult night.
Albeit under extremely difficult circumstances, APOEL secured European group stage football for the fifth time in seven seasons and now await their opponents when the Champions League playoff draw is conducted on Friday.
Results from the Champions League Qualifying Round 3 second leg matches on Tuesday:
APOEL Nicosia (Cyprus) – Midtjylland (Denmark) 0-1
First leg: Midtjylland – APOEL Nicosia 1-2. APOEL Nicosia win on away goals after 2-2 on aggregate.
Ajax Amsterdam (Netherlands) – Rapid Vienna (Austria) 2-3 (halftime: 0-2)
First leg: Rapid Vienna – Ajax Amsterdam 2-2. Rapid Vienna win 5-4 on aggregate.
Molde (Norway) – Dinamo Zagreb (Croatia) 3-3
First leg: Dinamo Zagreb – Molde 1-1. Dinamo Zagreb win on away goals after 4-4 on aggregate.
Next Fixtures :
Qualifying Round 3, Wednesday, August 5, second leg:
Astana (Kazakhstan) v HJK Helsinki (Finland)
Qarabag Agdam (Azerbaijan) v Celtic (Scotland)
Sparta Prague (Czech Republic) v CSKA Moscow (Russia)
BATE Borisov (Belarus) v Videoton FC (Hungary)
FC Basel (Switzerland) v Lech Poznan (Poland)
Club Bruges (Belgium) v Panathinaikos (Greece)
Partizan Belgrade (Serbia) v Steaua Bucharest (Romania)
Malmo (Sweden) v Salzburg (Austria)
Shakhtar Donetsk (Ukraine) v Fenerbahce (Turkey)
Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic) v Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel)
Skenderbeu (Albania) v Milsami Orhei (Moldova)