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Hope springs eternal for AEK Larnaca

AEK Larnaca FC will look to ape APOEL FC's success on Wednesday when a UEFA Europa League win at FC Steaua Bucureşti may secure them European football in the spring.

Gonzalo García and Gorka Pintado (right) celebrate a goal on matchday five
Gonzalo García and Gorka Pintado (right) celebrate a goal on matchday five ©Getty Images

APOEL FC's success in the UEFA Champions League has made this a sensational season for Cyprus but AEK Larnaca FC could yet join them in playing European football in the spring.

Having advanced from the second qualifying round, overcoming Rosenborg BK to reach the group stage, AEK could yet become the first Cypriot side to get to the UEFA Europa League round of 32. However, that depends on them winning at FC Steaua Bucureşti on Wednesday and second-placed Maccabi Haifa FC failing to beat Group J winners FC Schalke 04 in Israel.

If the odds are stacked against AEK, forward Njongo Priso is not giving up yet. "We have one last game to win in Bucharest against a very tough opponent," said the 22-year-old Cameroonian. "Football is a 50-50 game, but we are confident we can progress to the next round provided we work hard and take our chances."

Founded in 1994 from the merger of EPA Larnaca FC and Pezoporikos FC, AEK are the first team from the island to contest the group stage of UEFA's second club competition. They seemed to be out of the running in Group J until a 0-0 draw at FC Schalke 04, followed by a 2-1 home victory over Maccabi Haifa on matchday five, reignited their spark.

Between those results the club parted company with coach Ton Caanen, yet a dramatic upsurge in fortunes has ensued, with three straight league wins propelling AEK to fifth place in the Cypriot First Division. Leon Vlemmings has now replaced his fellow Dutchman and the one-time PSV Eindhoven youth coach could yet prove a lucky charm.

As his side head for Romania, and the same National Arena that will stage May's UEFA Europa League final, AEK have doubts over the fitness of forward Kyriakos Pavlou, defender Albert Serrán and striker Miljan Mrdaković, who scored in September's 1-1 home draw with Steaua. Their ambition remains intact, however.

"We are ready for this game and have shown we are in good form," said attacker Gorka Pintado. "We will go to Romania to play our own game, keep the ball and try to secure a positive result. Our aim is obviously to win but unfortunately we also know that, regarding qualifying, not everything is down to us."