By John Leonidou
It was once the role of Cypriot clubs to make up the numbers in European ties while also offering a sunny holiday for most teams. But these days a trip to the island is to be feared rather than relished, as national champions APOEL Nicosia FC and Cypriot Cup holders Anorthosis Famagusta FC have shown this season.
APOEL have already set a Cypriot record by surviving in Europe for eight games, having begun by eliminating Estonian side FC Flora and Slovenian champions NK Maribor in the UEFA Champions League qualifiers. After eventually being pipped by AEK Athens FC to the group stage, APOEL moved into the UEFA Cup first round, where Austrians Grazer AK became their next victims. A 2-0 win in Nicosia was topped off by an impressive 1-1 away draw, putting APOEL in Tuesday's second-round draw.
Guided by Dutch coach Egen Gerard, APOEL have evolved into an attacking side spearheaded by Kostakis Malekkos, with a solid defence marshalled by Marinos Ouzounides and Demetris Daskalakis. Their midfield play is also worthy of admiration with Armenian international Romik Khachatryan forever causing problems for defenders and Stavros Georgiou making surging runs.
'Everything is a bonus'
Gerard stated that his side had already exceeded expectations. "Our target was to go past the first two rounds in the Champions League qualifiers," he said. "We have achieved that so from now on everything is a bonus."
Meanwhile, APOEL's rivals Anorthosis Famagusta - the only refugees from the occupied north playing in Europe this season - have also waltzed into the UEFA Cup second round after eliminating Greek side Iraklis FC on the away goal rule.
After squeezing past Luxembourg team Grevenmacher CS, in the qualifying round, they then travelled to northern Greece where they fell to a 4-2 defeat. However, Anorthosis then overcame the odds by dramatically beating Iraklis 3-1 in Nicosia. Iraklis's loss to Anorthosis was their third elimination by Cypriot opposition, having gone out to APOEL in 1976/77 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup in the 1976/77 and 1995/96 UEFA Cup.
'We deserved to advance'
Veteran striker Panicos Xiourroupas, who came on as substitute to score the decisive away goal against Iraklis, believes Anorthosis fully deserve their current run. "Our victory against Iraklis was very important to the club," he said. "Both the players and the board of the club believed after the first game against Iraklis in Thessaloniki that we deserved to advance from the tie. Anorthosis are a historic Cypriot side with a great European presence and we proved that fact once more with our victory that we can play the European game."
Meanwhile, recent signing Temur Ketsbaia - who in the past enjoyed success with AEK and English Premiership club Newcastle United FC - added: "It was a very important win for the club and for the players, because we were not the favourites before the tie with Iraklis. But we showed that we are a good team and that Cypriot sides can play good football."
Not to be outdone, the Cypriot national team also made headlines when they began their EURO 2004™ campaign with a narrow 2-1 loss to holders France. The French - who in 1988 were held to a 1-1 draw in Limassol to Cyprus in a FIFA World Cup qualifier - were made to work for their victory after PAOK Thessalonki FC forward Ioannis Okkas put Cyprus ahead on 16 minutes with delicate chip over Grégory Coupet. In the past, Cyprus have beaten Spain, Greece, Israel, Romania and held Denmark, Russia and Estonia to draws.
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