APOEL FC have qualified for the UEFA Champions League group stage twice in the last four seasons, including a maiden quarter-final appearance in 2011/12, but club stalwart Marios Ilia has warned his team-mates not to take anything for granted when NK Maribor visit for the opening instalment of their third qualifying round tie on Wednesday.
Ilia, 34, has been at the Nicosia club since 1998 and has witnessed their improved performances in Europe first hand. However, with fellow Cypriot sides Anorthosis Famagusta FC and AC Omonia eliminated from the UEFA Europa League last week, the defender is keen to play down expectations.
"It's dangerous to single out favourites," Ilia told UEFA.com. "The gap between the so-called bigger and smaller teams has shrunk.
"That is why we have already seen so many upsets, not only recently involving Cypriot teams, but also other favourites like BATE [who lost in the second qualifying round to FC Shakhter Karagandy from Kazakhstan]. Nowadays you need to be on top of your game to beat your opponent. We want a positive result and one that will stand us in good stead ahead of the return game in Slovenia. However, doing that won't be easy."
Ilia fondly recalls the last time APOEL and Maribor met in UEFA Champions League qualifying. The full-back and current team-mates Marinos Satsias, Constantinos Charalambides and Nektarios Alexandrou featured in 2002/03 when they overturned a 2-1 first-leg deficit by winning 4-2 at home, where Ilia registered his first European goal for the club. "I remember it being a really exciting game and it was very tense affair from start to finish," he said. "We showed great character to bounce back after falling behind early.
"I remember the tension, especially in the last ten minutes when we needed to hold on while playing with only ten men. The victory was certainly a memorable one because, at the time, Maribor were the big favourites and we were the underdogs, but I believe the situation is different now."
APOEL have rung the changes over the summer, with coach Ivan Jovanović, who won four league titles and one Cypriot Cup during two spells in charge, replaced by former CFR 1907 Cluj and Heart of Midlothian FC boss Paulo Sergio. The new trainer has moved quickly to bring in seven fresh faces, but Ilia is adamant they have settled in well and will be prepared come Wednesday.
"The mood in the camp is really good," he continued. "There have been some big changes with new players coming in and a new coach. They all needed a bit of time to adapt, but I feel we will be ready for Wednesday. Our fans have always been an essential part of our success and I hope they will come and cheer us on because we will need them once again."
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