By Andreas Vou
APOEL will be looking to spark life into their European campaign when they travel to the Czech Republic to take on Sparta Prague on Thursday (8pm).
After losing 3-0 to Schalke in Nicosia in the opening group match of the Europa League, the Nicosia side will be aiming for a positive result to get their season on the continent back on track.
Manager Temur Ketsbaia has been boosted by the return of Stathis Aloneftis. The Cypriot winger has been out of action for almost four months but could feature in the game after coming on as a substitute in their recent 4-0 league win over Aris.
In that game, Tomas De Vincenti scored twice but APOEL will be without the Argentine attacking midfielder for the next three Europa League games after his red card for abusive language in the defeat to Schalke.
Also on the scoresheet against Aris was Fernando Cavenaghi who is now the league’s joint-top scorer with five. The striker started the last European game on the bench but could be in line for a start this time around with Pieros Soteriou unlikely to make the squad.
Also unavailable is the experienced Nektarios Alexandrou through injury as well as Vinicius who remains doubtful.
On the plus side, Joao Guilherme and Marios Antoniades both look to have shaken off their injury concerns and will start if need be.
The Czechs drew their opening European group game away to Asteras Tripolis and are heavy favourites according to bookmakers to secure their first victory against APOEL.
Sparta go into this game with morale low, however, as they suffered defeat in their last league game to city rivals Slavia by a solitary goal.
Despite the loss, Sparta remain top of the division with 17 points from their opening eight matches.
David Lafata is the player to watch for the APOEL defenders. The 34-year-old scored in the game against Asteras and has seven goals in as many matches to his name so far in the domestic season.
In last year’s Europa League group stages, Sparta won two out of their three home matches in convincing style: a 3-1 win over Young Boys in October was followed by a 4-0 win against Slovan Bratislava in November while also earning a respectable 0-0 draw against Napoli.
APOEL have an awful away record in Europe, having never won a game on foreign soil in the group stages of European competition.
Their performances so far in Europe this season have been underwhelming – their only victory, however, did come away from home against FC Midtjylland (1-2) in the Champions League third qualifying round.
The last meeting between the two sides came in a Champions League second qualifying round match in 2004 where, after a 2-2 draw in Nicosia, the Czech club earned a hard-fought 2-1 win to progress to the next round.
Three players from that APOEL squad over ten years ago are still among the current ranks: Constantinos Charalambides, Constantinos Makrides and Nektarios Alexandrou.
With Schalke strong favourites to take top spot in Group K, the upcoming duel between Sparta and APOEL is likely to have a big impact on who is likely to take the second spot to the knockout phase of the competition.