When this year’s UEFA Champions League groups were drawn, no-one would have anticipated matchday three arriving with Basel, Trabzonspor and APOEL Nicosia topping their respective sections. This pace-setting trio have confounded all the pre-tournament predictions and, of the three, it is APOEL who have arguably raised most eyebrows.
After all, while Turkish clubs boast a solid Champions League pedigree and Swiss sides have enjoyed some notable successes, Cyprus has always been considered a minnow in the continental arena. Anorthosis Famagusta came closest to causing an upset when they drew with Inter Milan and beat Panathinaikos in the 2008 group phase but, even then, a fourth-placed finish ensured that the script was eventually adhered to.
APOEL might yet suffer the same fate, of course, but all the evidence thus far points to a team well capable of taking Cypriot football into uncharted territory. Convincing qualifying wins over Slovan Bratislava and Wisla Krakow might have gone largely unnoticed, but compelling proof of their potential was provided when the Thrylos deservedly came from behind to beat Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 in their Group G opener.
With the club’s only previous group campaign having failed to yield a single victory, history had been made on matchday one, and the ensuing celebrations went on long into the Nicosia night. Yet amid the euphoria, one man remained calm. Ivan Jovanovic, APOEL's Serbian coach, had challenged his side to prove their top-level credentials, and remained insistent that one isolated success – however satisfying – would not suffice.
They can defend perfectly and attack very quickly, and have many talented and experienced players.
The only problem for Jovanovic was that his team’s next fixture took them to one of world football’s most imposing fortresses. It had, after all, taken 20 months for Shakhtar Donetsk to lose at the Donbass Arena following the stadium’s 2009 opening, and few expected APOEL to add a rare dent to this impressive home record.
As it was, the Cypriots once again defied expectations, emerging with a creditable 1-1 draw after taking a shock lead through Macedonian forward Ivan Trickovski. The result left APOEL top of the section, a point ahead of both Zenit and FC Porto, and even their frustrated group rivals have readily acknowledged that they are fully deserving of this lofty position.
Shakhtar’s gracious players were certainly quick to acknowledge the Cypriots’ attributes, with goalkeeper Olexandr Rybka leading the tributes. “We saw on matchday one that APOEL are wrongly considered underdogs,” he said. “They can defend perfectly and attack very quickly, and have many talented and experienced players. They always tried to steal the ball and create counter-attacks.”
The Ukrainians’ coach, Mircea Lucescu, also lauded the visitors as “a well-organised team with an excellent coach”, and predicted they would remain firmly in the fight for a place in the last 16. Even with a record 21 Cypriot championships behind them, reaching the knockout phase would represent the greatest achievement of APOEL’s 85-year history, and hopes are now high that this ambitious goal can be achieved.
The group is looking beautiful for us right now. I hope we can stay there but our targets remain the same.
As Jovanovic reflected: “The group is looking beautiful for us right now. I hope we can stay there but our targets remain the same. We have four more difficult games and like I have always said we need to be patient and composed.”
Midfielder Constantinos Charalambides, for his part, spoke of having made “Cyprus proud and all of Europe take notice”, while left-back William Boaventura – one of five Brazilians in the APOEL squad – admitted to satisfaction at proving the doubters wrong. “It's great to be at the top of the group because before the start nobody was expecting us to get any points,” he said. “But we believe in ourselves and we can do something even better.”
Nothing is achieved yet, of course, and the Cypriots’ next challenge – tomorrow’s trip to UEFA Europa League holders Porto – is arguably their toughest yet. Nor will anyone at APOEL need reminding of how their first visit to Portugal ended. On that occasion, back in 1963, the Nicosia outfit’s second European away match saw them beaten 16-1 by Sporting, a scoreline which still stands as an embarrassing club record.
Yet while it is just this kind of historical inferiority that led to them being written off this season, APOEL’s class of 2011 are evidently made of sterner stuff. Whether Jovanovic’s side can hang on and reach the last 16 remains to be seen, but Porto are guaranteed to find it a great deal tougher than their Portuguese predecessors 48 years ago.