|Žilina||H. Kiryat Shmona|
AEL Limassol FC will be looking to continue the impressive rise of Cypriot football when they embark on the first leg of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round tie against Northern Ireland's Linfield FC on Wednesday.
These have been an exciting few years on the European stage for Cypriot clubs, with Anorthosis Famagusta FC getting the ball rolling in 2008/09 when they become the first side from the Mediterranean island to reach the UEFA Champions League group stage. Last season, that feat was surpassed by APOEL FC's remarkable run to the quarter-finals, and AEK Larnaca FC also made history by becoming the first Cypriot side to reach the UEFA Europa League group stage.
Now, the baton is firmly in the hands of AEL, who earned the right to compete for a place in the group stage of Europe's premier club competition after slipping under the radar to claim their first title since 1968 – and a first major trophy in 23 years – at the expense of Ivan Jovanović's APOEL. "This has been a brilliant year for the club," said AEL coach Pambos Christodoulou, whose arrival in Limassol last summer was initially met with scepticism by some fans. "I don't believe anyone really thought we would clinch the league title but we worked hard and were deservedly crowned champions in the end."
APOEL's European adventure captured the public imagination until it was brought to an end by Real Madrid CF, and Christodoulou knows that emulating their run will be a tall order. "There is no hiding the fact that we are an inexperienced side in Europe," the 44-year-old said. "However, as history has shown us, experience can count for very little. Failing to reach the group stage will not necessarily be a failure on our part, but the rewards of achieving that goal will be immense for the club."
With the new domestic season due to get under way in September, Christodoulou was also keen to outline his plans to challenge for the club's seventh title. "This season, our aim is to build a team that will enter the pitch as favourites," said the former Doxa Katokopia FC and Olympiakos Nicosia FC forward. "For that to happen, each player will need to give everything, not just for the history of the club but also for the fans. I believe we will be title contenders again this season."
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