By Andreas Vou
APOEL must defeat group leaders Schalke in Gelsenkirchen and then hope that second-placed Sparta Prague fail to win at home to Asteras Tripolis on Thursday in order to have a realistic chance of reaching the knockout phase of the Europa League.
The Cyprus champions have left themselves with it all to do with just two games remaining following a run of poor showings in Europe this season.
A 2-0 loss against Asteras in their last group game has sentenced APOEL to a near certain exit from the tournament as their chances of picking up a win against Schalke are remote.
APOEL sit bottom of Group K with three points while Sparta are on six, therefore if APOEL match the Czech side’s result, they will then need to beat them by a large scoreline when they go head-to-head on in Nicosia due to their inferior goal difference.
If Sparta better APOEL’s result, the Cypriots are mathematically out.
Defeat in Tripoli dealt a huge blow to APOEL’s chances and it has kicked off their worst run of form this season as they have failed to win their following two league matches. A draw against arch-rivals Omonia was followed by a first league defeat of the season at home to Anorthosis (0-2) on Saturday.
As if the challenge of defeating Schalke away from home was not daunting in itself, APOEL have an abysmal away record in the group stages of European competition. In their 14 games on the road in the group phases of the Champions League and Europa League, they hold a record of six draws and eight defeats and have failed to find the net on their last six travels.
Schalke meanwhile are going through a rough patch of their own, having not managed a win in their last seven games in all competitions. A 1-3 defeat over the weekend against Bayern Munich sees them slip down to seventh in the Bundesliga after starting the season so well.
In Europe, after beating APOEL and Asteras in their opening two games, they have drawn both home and away against Sparta Prague meaning that they will be keen to seal a win in order to remain top of the group.
Temur Ketsbaia is likely to leave top goalscorer Fernando Cavenaghi and winger Giorgos Efrem in Cyprus as they recover from minor injuries. The manager is not overly eager in rushing either back into the first team fold with victory seen as such an unlikely probability.
Tomas De Vincenti is back from a three-match European ban but was unable to make the squad for the match against Anorthosis through injury so it remains to be seen whether he travels with the squad.
Goals are very much of a necessity but it is hard to see just where they will come from with Mateusz Piatkowski and Piero Soteriou to choose from up front. The former has scored just once since his summer arrival while the latter has yet to get off the mark this campaign.
The match kicks off at 8pm Cyprus time at the Veltins-Arena which is known for its lively atmosphere. The group’s other game in Prague kicks off at the same time.