By Andreas Vou
APOEL will play no further part in the Europa League beyond the group stages after a late Schalke goal was enough to separate the two sides at the Veltins-Arena in Germany on Thursday night.
The pre-match objective was clear but far from straight-forward for APOEL – the Cypriots had to defeat Schalke and hope that Sparta Prague failed to win against Asteras Tripolis.
Temur Ketsbaia’s side needed no reminder of the fact that they had never won an away match in the group stages of European competition in 14 attempts.
Schalke burst out of the traps with three good chances in the opening ten minutes. Joel Matip forced a spectacular save from Boy Waterman who got his fingertips to the Cameroonian’s header. Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting then had a header of his own saved well by the APOEL keeper while the same player curled a shot from the edge of the box just over the bar.
APOEL almost took a surprise lead moments later however, as a swift counter-attack resulted in Tomas De Vincenti blazing wide from Pieros Soteriou’s cross and though not an easy chance, the Argentine should have done better.
On 26 minutes, a superb cross from the wing found Klaas-Jan Huntelaar unmarked in the box but the usually lethal Dutchman headed over
Shot after shot continued to rain on Waterman’s goal but the score somehow remained goalless. Minutes later, Choupo-Moting had a shot cleared off the line by Mario Sergio after great work from Sane on the wing, and Huntelaar blasted over the rebound.
After surviving the storm, APOEL almost went into the break ahead. Another counter-attack saw Constantinos Charalambides bearing down on goal but, with little support and the defenders catching up, the veteran went for an audacious chip which went over.
For all of Schalke’s dominance, the biggest chance of the night fell to APOEL midway through the second half. Tomas De Vincenti’s sumptuous back-heel pass played Nuno Morais through on goal. The Portuguese midfielder attempted to dink the ball past Ralf Faehrmann but the keeper did well to read the attempt and parried the ball to safety.
Schalke continued to press for a winner but APOEL managed to limit their chances in the second period. While Schalke’s failure to score in the first-half was a mystery, the same applied for APOEL in the second. Vander broke through the German defence, took on the keeper but could not wrap his foot around the ball to steer the ball in and instead found the side-netting.
But just when it looked like APOEL had earned a commendable draw, Schalke grabbed a winner with just four minutes remaining. Sascha Riether’s low cross found Choupo-Moting and this time the forward found the net to make it 1-0.
Salt was almost rubbed into APOEL wounds as Schalke were awarded a penalty moments later but Waterman stooped low to save Dennis Aogo’s kick. Nevertheless, it was too late for APOEL to stage a fightback.
APOEL had to at least equal Sparta’s result to have any hope of progressing to the knockout phase but the Czechs’ 1-0 win in Tripoli means the end of the Nicosia side’s future in this year’s competition.
Sparta visit the Cypriot capital on December 10 with the hope of claiming top spot in the group while APOEL have the only incentive of boosting their own, and the country’s, UEFA coefficient ranking.