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Cyprus football

Apoel say sixth straight title ‘most difficult yet sweetest’

Apoel left it late before sealing a dramatic Cyprus football championship title

Apoel clinched their sixth consecutive title and 27th overall thanks to Mikael Pote’s dramatic late winner in their final game of the season against Anorthosis at the GSP Stadium on Saturday night.

Apoel had begun the season as joint favourites wih Apollon in the 36-round marathon, and even though they finished top of the table at the end of the regular season, a draw at home to AEK and a loss to Apollon in rounds two and three of the playoffs respectively saw their rivals Apollon pull clear by three points at the top.

AEK gave the champions a lifeline after they inflicted an unexpectedly heavy defeat on Apollon, allowing Apoel to close the gap, and when the Nicosia giants beat Apollon three rounds before the end of the season, they just had to keep their composure and win their final two games to be crowned champions.

They did it the hard way, coming from behind to win both games 2-1.

Apoel’s path to the championship was a turbulent one, with club president Prodromos Petrides admitting: “It was by far the most difficult yet sweetest of our six straight titles as we faced adversity right from the start, but we battled through and were rewarded.”

The season started in bizarre circumstances for Apoel as they decided to sack their newly-appointed coach, Mario Bein, just a month into his post after a couple of less than convincing displays in the Champions League qualifiers.

He was replaced by Greek coach Giorgos Donis who managed in a few days to get Apoel back on track, steering them into the money-spinning group stage of the Champions League. He was hailed a saviour by the Apoel faithful.

Donis was himself replaced in March by Bruno Baltazar after a drop in form and a string of poor results culminating in the 4-2 defeat by Apollon in the playoffs.

The gruelling Champions League run that pitted them against the likes of Real Madrid, Tottenham and Borussia Dortmund plus a number of serious injuries to key players were largely the reasons why Apoel stuttered.

Beginning in September, Apoel lost their first choice goalkeeper Boy Waterman for five months with a shoulder injury while one of the most accomplished defenders ever to play in Cyprus, Carlao, spent more time in the treatment room than on the field.

Another defender Roberto Lago, was also ruled out for most of 2017 while midfield schemer Bertoglio was hardly able to complete a couple of matches until December and was let go.

One of the most valauable players for the champions last year, winger Giorgos Efraim, was injured in August in a Champions League qualifying game and only last month returned to full fitness.

In December, Apoel suffered a ‘triple blow’ when three other first team players, Rueda, Milanov and Vinicius had to go undergo surgery and were to miss the rest of the season.

If so many long-term injuries to key players happened to any other team in Cyprus they would most probably have buckled. Apoel though had the squad depth and mental strength to battle on and reach the winning post even if they did so with just a few minutes to spare.

Despite all these difficulties Apoel still managed to amass a record number of points since the playoffs began and finished with the most victories (27).

They also scored the most goals (92) in the club’s history while they remained the only team to have defeated both home and away, the other clubs in the top playoff group.

The only blemish was that they only managed to keep 12 clean sheets and let in 35 goals, 10 of them conceded against main title challengers Apollon.

Apollon meanwhile played their part in making this a close and enthralling championship, battling with Apoel from virtually the very first kick of the season and proved worthy opponents.

They were arguably the most pleasing team to watch with their direct and attack-minded play. Their Cypriot coach Sofronis Avgousti was deservedly voted Manager of the Year, while five of his players were voted in the Team of the Year.

Anorthosis and AEK join the champions and Apollon as Cyprus’ representatives in next season’s European competitions.

Omonia’s Matt Derbyshire was the league’s top scorer for the second time with a tally of 23 goals, pipping AEK’s Florian Taulemmeuse on the final day.

However this was scant consolation for the once mighty Omonia who finished bottom of the championship group, failing to finish in a European spot for the second year running.

Aris and Ethnikos Achnas were the two teams that were relegated at the end of the regular season while Olympiakos joined them after picking up just four points from a possible 30 in the playoffs.

Final day results:

Champions Group:
Apoel 2 Anorthosis 1
AEK 3 AEL 2
Omonia 1 Apollon 0

Relegation Group:
Olympiakos 3 Ermis 3
Doxa 0 Pafos FC 3
Salamina 4 Alki 0

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