THE stand-out game in the second round of the Cyprus playoffs is the Limassol derby between third-placed AEL and second-placed Apollon.
Elsewhere, leaders Apoel face a tough home match against AEK, while the third top group game sees the two ‘indifferent’ teams, Omonia and Nea Salamina clash at the GSP stadium in Nicosia.
Of the six teams in the bottom group, five are still not out of the woods, with only Anorthosis looking safe from the drop. Doxa Katokopias take on Pafos FC, Anorthosis are at home to Enosis while the last game is between Alki and bottom of the group Ermis Aradippou, who seem almost certain of relegation.
In years gone by the AEL v Apollon clash would attract at least 6,000 fans but on Saturday not even a third are expected to turn up for the game even if both sides are still in the hunt for the championship. Many are pointing to the ‘notorious’ fan card as the main reason but other factors come into play like the increasing fixture load (AEL will face Apollon a total of six times this season) but more importantly the loss of reputation of the game in Cyprus due to the recent scandals with fans not expecting things to improve in the immediate future.
AEL have already issued an announcement urging their fans to gather outside the Tsirion stadium to ‘support’ their team.
On the pitch, AEL coach Ducan Kerkez will need to decide if he will keep the 4-4-2 formation he deployed against AEK, that worked well for them in their last game (despite losing) or revert to a more defensive system with three central defenders.
The return of Davor, Leandro and Andamovic to the squad, after serving their one-game suspension, will bring a pleasant headache for Kerkez as all three featured regularly in the starting eleven in recent games.
Sofronis Avgousti, his counterpart at Apollon, is also happy to see key players returning to fitness after lengthy layoffs, especially central defender Hector Yuste, as this will allow Chambos Kyriacou to move back to his normal position alongside Argentinian Esteban Sachetti in midfield.
Apollon do hold the edge over their bitter rivals but AEL know that a defeat will all but end their championship hopes and with AEK breathing down their necks, risk losing out on third place as well.
Apoel and AEK met in the cup last Wednesday where Apoel managed to scrape through on the away goals rule as both games ended in draws. The two sides will meet for the sixth time this season (two regular season, two cup games, one Super Cup and the playoff game) and fourth time in the space of three weeks, and the worrying statistic for Apoel is that they have not defeated AEK in any of these games, losing once and drawing the others.
Apoel coach Tramezzani is expected to ring the changes from Wednesday’s cup game with no less than six changes.
With their hopes of winning the cup for a second consecutive season dashed, AEK will be looking to finish as high up the table as possible with third place a distinct possibility.
AEK coach Imanol Idiakez will probably recall French striker Florian Taulemmeuse, especially if his leading striker Ivan Triscovski failed a late fitness test. Tete left last Wednesdays game clutching his hamstring and will probably join Acoran and Cases on the treatment table.
Bottom-placed Ermis Aradippou are seven points adrift of their nearest rivals (Alki, Enosis, Doxa) and eight behind Pafos FC.
Anything other than a win for Ermis Aradippou against Alki will all but end their slim hopes of survival.
Anorthosis are at home to Enosis and with Timur Getsbaya watching from the stands the Anorthosis players will want to impress their soon-to-be new coach.
However Enosis are a well-organised team and will be a tough opponent especially if you consider that they were the team that knocked Anorthosis out of the cup over two legs in the second round.
Doxa Katokopias and Pafos FC were both considered too good for the drop especially after the first round, but a loss of form for the former since January, and a seven-point penalty deduction for the latter put them both precariously close to the relegation zone.
They meet at the Makarion stadium in a game with no clear favourite.
Saturday: AEL v Apollon (5.00), Omonia v Nea Salamina (6.00), (R*) Doxa v Pafos FC (7.00)
Sunday: (R) Anorthosis v Enosis (4.00), (R) Alki v Ermis (5.00) Apoel v AEK (6.00)
(* Relegation group)