Football Friends Online – When 90 Mins Is Not EnoughAPOEL bring refreshment to the Group Stages - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough APOEL bring refreshment to the Group Stages - Football Friends Online - When 90 Mins Is Not Enough

APOEL bring refreshment to the Group Stages

On Tuesday night in Nicosia, it looked as though Porto had managed to prevent the latest mark of the APOEL fairy-tale start to this year’s Champions League, a Hulk penalty in the 90th minute the long awaited equaliser to Ailton’s first half spot-kick, yet in a fashion fitting in perfectly to the scarcely believable start to this year’s European competition in Group C, APOEL flew right back to the other end of the pitch and dramatically won the game, Gustavo Manduca on hand to turn in a drilled cross from captain Constantinos Charalambides. It was a breathless finale, but the romantics would not have it any other way, as the dust settled in Cyprus, it was little APOEL Nicosia, from qualification pot 4, who topped the group with just two games to go.

APOEL now travel to Zenit St Petersburg in three weeks’ time knowing that a win would secure qualification into the knockout stages for the Cypriots. When put into context, APEOL were the minnows of a group containing Europa League holders and unbeaten Portuguese champions Porto, Russian champions Zenit and Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk, the side ranked eleventh in Europe by UEFA and still they remain unbeaten. When qualification from a group as difficult as this, compounded with the fact that only one Cypriot team before them has ever participated in the Champions League, Anorthosis Famagusta’s bottom place group stage finish of 2008, it would be a story verging on the miraculous.

APOEL have been here before, drawn in Chelsea’s group as recently as 2009 they finished fourth, level on points with Atletico Madrid who took Europa League precedence by due of an away goal scored in Nicosia. Serbian manager Ivan Jovanovic took this as a learning process and strengthened his side in the summer of 2010, having finished the season trophyless. In 2011, he guided APOEL to their 21st title, his third of a broken five year spell in which he had spent a year in charge of Panahiki in 2005, then Iraklis Thessalonika in 2007, and a success in the domestic Cypriot Cup. It was a dominant stroll as APOEL finished a whole 12, then 11 points ahead of near rivals Omonia (the Cyprus first division separates into groups after 26 matches for a second round) qualifying them for the second qualifying round of the Champions League.

APOEL’s second appearance in the competition has coincided in the three years since the qualifying process was renovated under Michel Platini’s presidency at UEFA. APOEL have directly benefitted from the Platini reforms as new rules dictate a two tier seeding process for qualifiers in which clubs emanating from top ranked countries would face each other, leaving middle ranked countries to battle each other at the final hurdle. The prime example of the effectiveness of the reforms being APOEL, with their status of Cypriot league winners, having to beat Polish champions Wisla Krakow, as well as qualification from Victoria Plzen and Genk, are in the absence of an Italian giant like Udinese, currently second in domestic Serie A, who lost out to Arsenal.

Under the old seeding system, clubs qualifying as champions of middle ranking leagues would usually draw top level clubs, causing a likeliness to fall at the final hurdle and miss out on the chance to play Champions League football. At the time, Platini questioned whether this was really fair.

“We want to add some of the other countries to the competition and to do that we have to take some of the others away. I’m not sure that the fourth clubs from Spain, Italy and England are more important than the champions of Poland, the Czech Republic and Denmark,” Platini said back in 2009. Under the current system, APOEL faced  Skenderbeu Korce of Albania, winning 6-0 on aggregate, Slovakians Slovan Bratislvava, winning 2-0 on aggregate while Wisla Krakow were done away with a quite comfortable 3-1 aggregate scoreline. Platini’s reform has ensured a possible route for the smaller clubs to compete with the big boys on the grandest stage and teams like APOEL are showing, if negotiated correctly, how it can breed a fascinating journey.

As APOEL embark on a real opportunity to progress into the knockout stages, elsewhere in the city of Nicosia, rivals Omonia, having invested large amounts of money attempting to replicate their rival’s success of two years ago, find themselves in dire financial trouble, struggling to pay player wages and facing impending legal battles, showing, at the other end of the scale, what happens if you get the intended plan to take advantage of the route into the Champions League badly wrong. APOEL used the money gained from their 2009 adventure wisely, buying players such as Tuesday’s scorer Manduca from Greek side AEK and Braga’s Kaka, having played in the Europa League final, attracting them with the carrot of Champions League football. The result of a single team entry into the Champions League qualifiers also allowed Ivan Jovanovic to keep hold of his best players, such as player of the season Ailton, and joint top scorers Ivan Trickovski and Esteban Solari, who both netted eleven times. Midfielder Nuno Morais, formerly of Chelsea, is also at APOEL, spearheading both league successes from his post as a central midfield hub of the team.

Whatever happens to APOEL in their next two group games, even if they don’t secure the win that will guarantee passage into the golden waters of the last 16, they have already indicated that UEFA have successfully laid the groundwork for more teams of that calibre to qualify and that more Dinamo Zagreb’s, currently being subjected to a Group D thrashing by perennial European powerhouses Real Madrid, Lyon and Ajax, to undergo the learning curve and improve for a calculated return to the biggest stage a year or two later. APOEL are setting the standard, whilst simultaneously breathing new air into the group stages. Who said the pre-knockout stages were boring?

Adam Gray @MonkeyLunch21

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