AEL Limassol FC coach Charalampos Christodoulou praised his players for standing firm in the face of adversity to secure a 1-0 third qualifying round victory at FK Partizan on Wednesday night.
Leading 1-0 from last week's home leg, AEL doubled their advantage through Dosa Júnior midway through the first half in Belgrade to move within sight of the UEFA Champions League play-offs. The Cypriot champions did not have it all their own way, though, and were forced to play with ten men for more than an hour following the dismissal of Jorge Lourenço.
"After the goal and the sending-off, the players coped unbelievably well," said Christodoulou, who watched his side earn a first-ever away victory in UEFA competition. "
All the players were drawing inspiration from each other. We managed to hold the 1-0 lead and we could have added a second to really put the contest beyond doubt in the second half."
Surprise Cypriot First Division winners last term – for the first time since 1968 – AEL's triumph was founded on defensive solidity. Such an ability to stifle opposition attacks has again come to the fore, with AEL going four matches without conceding in Europe.
"We studied our opponents well before this game and it was our plan to pressure them high up the field and to nick a goal," said Christodoulou. "Our philosophy is always to play good football and, with just a slender 1-0 lead, it would have been difficult for us to play too defensively, especially at such a venue."
Christodoulou, a 44-year-old former striker with Doxa Katokopia FC and Olympiakos Nicosia FC, also hailed the efforts of his club and their supporters following the win in the Serbian capital. "To walk away from this ground to the applause of the home fans says a lot," he added. "I would like to thank the players, the staff and the board for this success. I would also like to thank the fans from the bottom of my heart. They have stood by us both at home and in Europe – and have been tremendous."
Next up in the play-offs for AEL will be one from FC Basel 1893, RSC Anderlecht, Celtic FC, FC BATE Borisov and GNK Dinamo Zagreb. Chairman Andreas Sofocleous is sure they can cope as they seek to emulate Cypriot rivals APOEL FC, UEFA Champions League quarter-finalists last season.
"This team have shown they have what it takes to seal their place in the Champions League group stage, although the Europa League would be no small feat either," he said. "We may be an inexperienced side in this competition but I have faith we can do it."
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