APOEL FC face the biggest game in their history when they take on Real Madrid CF next week, but first they must take care of domestic matters as they entertain local rivals AC Omonia in Friday's top-of-the-table encounter.
Ivan Jovanović's side have this been taking the plaudits from across the continent thanks to their extraordinary run to the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. It has not been such plain sailing on the domestic front, however, with APOEL suffering shock defeats by Alki Larnaca FC and Nea Salamis Famagusta FC earlier in the season to drop off the pace set by Cypriot First Division leaders Omonia.
Victory against their Nicosia rivals – one point clear at the summit – would act as a significant statement of intent prior to the end-of-season play-offs, as well as serving as a morale booster ahead of Tuesday's first leg with José Mourinho's side.
Unsurprisingly, Omonia boss Neophytos Larkou is planning to do his counterpart no favours. "You don't need me to explain what we will be seeking from this game," he said. "We are all working hard to ensure we will be fit and ready to take victory. The game will be decided by who wants to win the most." With fourth-placed Anorthosis Famagusta FC seemingly off the pace, the title race is expected to go down to the wire, with Omonia, APOEL and surprise package AEL Limassol FC all still in contention.
Larkou, though, whose charges were beaten 3-1 by APOEL earlier this term, is determined to downplay the significance of Friday's game. "I wouldn't say this game is crucial in terms of the title race because there are another six games that will be equally crucial," he said. "The derbies against APOEL are always open games and both our opponents and ourselves are in very good shape at the moment."
Omonia skipper Christos Karipidis, meanwhile, insists he and his team-mates have not been sidetracked by the attention APOEL's European exploits have attracted. "We are only concerned by what we do and we continue to work hard," he said. "Our only concern is our own team."
Larkou will be without striker Freddy, the league's leading scorer with 17 goals this season, while another notable absentee is Bruno Aguiar. Goalkeeper Antonis Giorgallides and Leandro are also struggling to be fit.
Meanwhile, APOEL's top scorer, Esteban Solari, is imploring his side not to look too far ahead. "We are totally focused on the game against Omonia," he said. "We know just how important it is to take three points from such a big derby.
"The games against Omonia are always special and are always emotional occasions – not just for the fans but also for the players. We will give our all to win, which we know will be difficult. We expect our fans to be right behind us, pushing us all the way like they always do. We are confident and looking forward to it."
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