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APOEL FC coach Ivan Jovanović hailed his side after they eliminated ŠK Slovan Bratislava to reach the UEFA Champions League play-offs and continue what has been a remarkable season for Cypriot clubs.
After APOEL reached the group stage of the UEFA Champions League two seasons ago, where they secured impressive draws against eventual UEFA Europa League winners Club Atlético de Madrid (0-0, 1-1), and Chelsea FC (2-2), the bar was raised throughout the entire Cypriot football community.
The same club are once again leading the way this year after recording a 2-0 win at Slovan Bratislava on Wednesday which booked their place in Friday's play-off draw. Second-half strikes from Brazilians Aílton and Gustavo Manduca ensured that Jovanović's charges stayed on course for what would be a third appearance by a Cypriot side in the group stages of a UEFA competition.
"This game was a big test for us," said Jovanović, who has won three league titles and a Cypriot Cup with the Nicosia club. "Our aim is to qualify for the Champions League group phase. But, even if we only make it into the Europa League, that will also be a rewarding achievement for everyone associated with APOEL – from the board to the fans."
Though APOEL have scored eight and conceded none in their four European fixtures this season, they are taking nothing for granted. "The fact that we are seeded doesn't change anything for us," added Jovanović. "All opponents at this stage will be difficult.
We have eliminated strong sides to get to where we are but we mustn't forget that our opponents also did the same. We are certainly not the favourites because we are seeded."
Indeed, chairman Fivos Erotokiritou feels his players can continue their European adventure in the knowledge they have reached a win-win position. "We deserved to be in the play-offs," he said. "The players did what we expected them to do against Slovan and they earned us this priceless qualification.
"It is our dream to play in the Champions League but we will enter the play-offs without pressure because the Europa League will still be fantastic consolation for us. But we are aiming for the Champions League and we are certain we can do it again."
APOEL's domestic rivals, AC Omonia and AEK Larnaca FC, meanwhile, are also enjoying success on the continent this season. Both teams have one foot in the UEFA Europa League play-offs as they defend 3-0 first-leg leads against ADO Den Haag and FK Mladá Boleslav respectively on Thursday. Only Anorthosis Famagusta FC still have it all to do, needing to overturn a 2-0 home defeat by FK Rabotnički in order to progress.
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