By Andreas Vou
A late equaliser from FC Astana’s Nemanja Maksimovic sent APOEL crashing out of the Champions League on Wednesday night in Nicosia after a 1-1 draw.
The Cyprus champions will continue their campaign on the continent in the Europa League.
Despite being by far the more experienced of the two sides in European competition, APOEL’s barren run in front of goal going into the game hardly instilled confidence to the team’s cause as they aimed to turn around the 1-0 deficit from the first leg in Kazakhstan.
Their last home goal at the GSP in Europe prior to the match was a Gustavo Manduca penalty back in September in the group stages. Astana were on a dry spell of their own, having failed to score in their last three European travels.
Domingos Paciencia made his intentions clear from the off with a far more creative line-up than in the first leg. Brazilian winger Vander, who played a key role in the second leg against FC Midtjylland was thrown straight back into the side after returning from injury. Bosnian playmaker Semir Stilic was handed a rare start and Tomas De Vincenti completed the trio behind lone striker Luis Leal.
A crowd of around 20,000 filled the stands of the GSP Stadium and among those was the president of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades.
APOEL dominated the early exchanges, penning their opponents back in their own half for the large part but, as has been the case in the previous rounds, failed to create any significant opportunities.
On 35 minutes came the game’s first real chance but, for all of the hosts’ possession, it fell to Astana. Baurzhan Dzholchiyev who scored the only goal of the first leg came close to scoring again after easily beating full-back Marios Antoniades before unleashing a powerful shot across goal but Boy Waterman in the APOEL goal was equal to it.
The chance seemed to give APOEL the wake-up call they needed as, in the very next attack, they came close to levelling the tie. A clever through pass from Stilic found Leal whose goalbound effort was tipped onto the post by Astana keeper Eric.
APOEL almost made the perfect start to the second half. A cheeky back heel by Vander set Mario Sergio free on the right flank – his wonderful cross picked out De Vincenti unmarked but the Argentine’s low stooping header was way off target.
Stilic had been shunned by Paciencia in previous qualifiers but he was about to prove a point in the most convincing of ways. Precisely on the hour mark, the Bosnian whipped a beauty of a free-kick beyond the reach of the Astana keeper to bring APOEL level in the tie.
APOEL’s confidence grew as the game wore on but that killer touch still lacked in and around the penalty area, with De Vincenti again coming close from six yards out but denied instinctively by Eric.
Club captain Constantinos Charalambidis was introduced for his experience in the second half and he too came mightily close with a thunderous free-kick which was tipped over the bar at full stretch.
But as APOEL pushed forward for the winner, Astana countered and the Cypriots paid the ultimate price with six minutes left. Dzholchiyev beat Antoniades on the left and his cross-come-shot found Maksimovic waiting at the back stick, where the youngster tapped home to send his to the Champions League groups for the first time in their history.
APOEL’s hopes of a fourth Champions League group campaign came to an end but their European season will nevertheless continue in the groups of the Europa League.