By Andreas Vou
APOEL have made the long trip to Kazakhstan for the first leg of a tricky Champions League playoff tie against Astana on Tuesday night who have not lost a home match in 12 months.
The Cypriot champions are looking to make it to the group stages of Europe’s elite competition for the fourth time in seven seasons but their unconvincing start to the campaign has heaped pressure on them to perform in the upcoming playoff round.
Last week’s Cypriot Super Cup saw the Nicosia club lose to AEL on penalties after an uninspiring goalless 90 minutes, and their displays in Europe in previous weeks, where they have scored just three times and won one of their four matches, has left fans questioning their side’s capabilities going into the money-spinning two-legged affair.
APOEL squeezed into the playoffs on the away goals rule after suffering a nail-biting 0-1 defeat at home to FC Midtjylland. An early goal for the Danes coupled with a series of questionable decisions from Scottish referee Bobby Madden saw APOEL with their backs against the wall for the majority of the match.
Brazilian midfielder Vinicius was sent off in the first-half for a strong challenge and, despite making the trip with the squad, will be unavailable for selection. His fellow countryman Vander was pivotal to APOEL establishing some sort of foothold in the game following his second-half introduction but the former AEK player has been ruled out through injury.
Manager Domingos Paciencia has, however, been boosted by the return of centre-back Carlao who has overcome a slight knock suffered in the Super Cup.
Astana were founded less than seven years ago and are set to appear in the Champions League playoff round for the first time in their brief history. The Kazakh champions kicked off their domestic campaign last week with a hard fought 0-1 win at Aktobe thanks to a late strike from Roger Cañas who will be one of the players that the APOEL defence will have to keep a close eye on.
APOEL will train twice in the Astana Arena in order to get used to the artificial turf which is notorious for causing problems for visiting teams. Astana have already beaten Maribor and HJK Helsinki at home in the previous two qualifiers and their last defeat on home soil came against Villarreal last August in the Europa League playoff round.
Astana needed a 92nd minute winner from Evgeny Postnikov to progress past the last round in an epic 4-3 win over Helsinki after a goalless first leg match. Striker Patrick Twumasi was sent off in the second half of that match, meaning that he will be suspended from Tuesday’s game.
The club’s assistant manager Gregory Babayan told local media that he sees APOEL as Astana’s toughest opponent so far this campaign but does not fear the Cypriot club.
“APOEL are stronger than Maribor and Helsinki but we can match them even if they are the favourites. Their experience is their only advantage over us,” said Babayan.
Due to the four-hour difference with central Europe, Tuesday’s match will kick off earlier than the rest of the qualifiers, at 7pm Cypriot time and 10pm local time.