APOEL Nicosia FC are just two games away from the group stages of the UEFA Champions League.
By Pavle Gognidze & John Leonidou
The UEFA Champions League third qualifying round tie between APOEL Nicosia FC of Cyprus and AEK Athens FC of Greece is an intriguing clash with plenty of historical resonance.
Several years ago the prospect of a Cypriot side reaching the UEFA Champions League group stages would have been dismissed as a pipe dream. However, after comprehensively beating FC Flora and NK Maribor in the first and second qualifying rounds, APOEL are just two matches away from transforming that dream into a reality.
APOEL are one of the oldest and greatest clubs on the Mediterranean holiday paradise that is Cyprus. At one time the club had the renowned former Liverpool FC midfield player Terry McDermott in their ranks, a man who was no stranger to European success himself having lifted the European Champion Clubs' Cup three times while playing for the Merseyside giants.
Adding to the spice of their meeting with Hellenic National League runners-up AEK, APOEL also have extensive historical links with Greece. In 1932 a local football player named Diomedes Simeonides and an athlete called Georgos Poulias formed a Greek-Cypriot sports club in Nicosia. In fact, APOEL means Athlitikos Podosferikos Omilos Elinnon Lefkosias (Athletic Football Club Greeks Nicosia).
Relations between Greek and Cypriot clubs have always been strong. Indeed between 1967 and 1974 the champions of Cyprus played in the Hellenic first division. That schedule was scrapped in 1974 - ironically that was the very season that APOEL become the only Cypriot side to avoid relegation from the Hellenic National League.
APOEL's record against Greek opposition is impressive with three wins, three draws and no defeats. The last time APOEL faced AEK was in the 1992/93 season in the Champions League first round when the Greek champions scraped through on the away goal rule after a resilient APOEL side fought out a 1-1 draw in Athens, before being held to a 2-2 draw in Nicosia. Incredibly, AEK's substitute goalkeeper that night, Elias Atmatsidis, is in with a chance of appearing for the Greek side in this 2002 rematch.
APOEL's current side consists mainly of talented Cypriot international players including Costas Malekkos, Marios Agathocleous, Stavros Georgiou, Konstantinos Charalambides, Demetris Daskalakis and Michael Morfis. Charalambides, who scored the third goal against Maribor in the previous round, is adamant that the side will not freeze. "This is a big game for all of us, we all know AEK and know what a great team they are," he said. "Knowing that we will be facing such a big club is a tremendous buzz for us and we will definitely give it a good go. We are definitely focused for this game and there is a chance we can go through to the group stages."
Everything a bonus
Tuesday will also be a special day for APOEL head coach Egen Gerard, who was formerly assistant coach of AEK. "Everything that will happen after the tie with NK Maribor is a bonus for us," he said. "Our target was to go past the first two rounds in Europe, we have achieved that so from now on everything is a bonus."
"A different side"
Gerard believes that AEK are a different side from the team he worked for several years ago. "During the times I was there the situation was very difficult," he said. "Two years later, AEK are obviously a transformed side. I know a few of the players whereas there are players I am not familiar with that have just come into the side. But AEK have studied us well. They saw us in both games against Flora and Maribor."
What is certain is the fact that both games will be sell-outs. AEK have a huge following in Cyprus, with the Greek military stationed in the island expected to arrive in large numbers to swell the travelling fans from Athens. APOEL also have a big following in Athens as many Cypriot students travel each year to Greece to study. With airline fares lowered especially for the occasion, APOEL may just have the support they need to cause arguably one of the biggest shocks in Champions League history and qualify for the group stages.