By Andres Vou
APOEL fell to a 1-0 defeat against FC Astana in the Champions League playoff first leg on Tuesday night, leaving themselves with plenty of work to do in next Wednesday’s return match in Nicosia.
Despite Astana’s minimal experience in European competition, APOEL were fully aware of the threat the Kazakh champions posed. Astana had seen off the threat of Maribor and HJK Helsinki in the previous rounds and had not lost a home game since last August.
APOEL had plenty of complaints from the officials in their last European match at home to FC Midtjylland, one of those being for what appeared to be a clear penalty on Tomas De Vincenti turned down, and it would be a case of history repeated for the Cypriots.
De Vincenti was felled in the area on 13 minutes yet play was waved on. The non-decision would prove costly as the home side grabbed the game’s only goal from the resulting counter-attack.
An in-swinging cross into the box by Foxi Kethevoama was met confidently by Baurzhan Dzholchiyev who stole a march in front of the APOEL defenders to powerfully head his side into the lead.
The goal seemed to damage APOEL’s early rhythm and handed the home side a confidence boost as Astana looked the likelier of the two sides to grab the next goal of the half.
Had it not been for the excellent work of goalkeeper Boy Waterman, Astana would have extended the scoreline before the break as they twice came close; first with a near-post strike by Dzholchiyev and soon after via a Dmitriy Zhukov effort.
APOEL’s dull first-half display was enough to convince manager Domingos Paciencia to make an attack-minded change at half-time, as striker Mateusz Piatkowski replaced Nektarios Alexandrou.
The switch seemed to have an impact as the visitors’ first shot on target shortly followed. Giorgos Efrem fired a powerful effort from the edge of the box which was tipped away for a corner by Nenad Eric. APOEL’s best chance of the night came on 55 minutes through an unlikely source. Centre-back Iñaki Astiz ventured forward and combined with De Vincenti whose cross found him unmarked in the box but the Basque defender skewed his effort wide.
On the hour mark, APOEL came close again, this time from a free-kick. Mario Sergio teed the ball off to Luis Leal, whose driven effort went just wide of the post.
As they went in pursuit of a leveller, APOEL left gaps at the back which almost proved costly as Astana came close to doubling their lead. A cross to the back post by substitute Junior Kabananga was headed down by Evgeny Postnikov into the path of Nemanja Maksimovic but the young Serbian blazed over the bar.
Waterman was brought into action just minutes later as Kethevoama released a rasping effort from all of 35 yards which had to be tipped over the bar by the Dutch keeper.
APOEL pushed for an equaliser late on but could not grab what would have been a crucial away goal. The 1-0 scoreline leaves APOEL with a tough challenge in next Wednesday’s return fixture as the Nicosia club have failed to score in their three home games this season.