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Merkis rallies Apollon after two-goal defeat of Nice

"I hope we can qualify not just for the club but for all of Cyprus," said Apollon Limassol FC captain Georgos Merkis after leading his side to a 2-0 first-leg win against OGC Nice.

Gaston Sangoy salutes the crowd after scoring for Apollon
Gaston Sangoy salutes the crowd after scoring for Apollon ©AFP/Getty Images

Apollon Limassol FC skipper Georgos Merkis implored his team-mates not to rest on their laurels after securing a famous 2-0 victory against OGC Nice in the first leg of their UEFA Europa League play-off.

Christakis Christoforou's men were billed as overwhelming underdogs going into the tie, but a second-half double from Argentinian forward Gaston Sangoy has put them in a commanding position ahead of the 29 August decider at Stade Municipal du Ray. Unlike their cross-town rivals AEL Limassol FC, Apollon have never reached the group stage of a UEFA competition, yet find themselves on the verge of creating history.

Merkis, who saw domestic rivals Anorthosis Famagusta FC surrender a 3-0 first-leg advantage against Gefle IF in the second qualifying round last month, is determined not to make the same mistake. "We go to France knowing that Anorthosis lost 4-0 after taking a 3-0 lead, so that serves as a warning that we need to stay focused," said the Cyprus defender.

"This is a great result for us considering that Nice were favourites. We were a bit nervous in the opening exchanges but grew in confidence as the game went on. Things are going well for us and our fans have been great. I hope we can qualify not just for ourselves and the club but for all of Cyprus."

Experienced midfielder Rachid Hamdani, 28, who learned his trade in the lower reaches of French football before joining Apollon in 2011, was overwhelmed by the result. "I didn't expect us to win, although we did believe we could play well against them," he said. "We are delighted, but nothing is over because we have a tough second leg awaiting us. We showed our true fighting spirit and we will do the same over there."

Nice captain Didier Digard, meanwhile, rued his team's failure to take heed of coach Claude Puel's pearls of wisdom at the interval. “We are not in the best position ahead of the second leg. We had been warned that Apollon should not be taken lightly," said the 27-year-old.

"During the half-time break, the manager told us not to give away free-kicks because they thrive on set pieces. As we all saw, we were punished from a set piece and, after that, things got worse. Prior to their first goal, they didn't create many problems for us."