Cypriot underdogs Anorthosis Famagusta's threw away a two-goal lead to be held by Werder Bremen in a Group D nail-biter on Wednesday, leaving their hopes of further UEFA Champions League progress hanging by a thread.
Two goals in the space of six minutes seemed to have secured another victory for the minnows against top-class opposition. But with less than 20 minutes to go, Bremen clawed their way back with a Diego penalty, and Hugo Almeida rifled home with only three minutes left on the clock.
Veteran Nikos Nikolaou came off the bench to score on 62 minutes, side-footing a volley into the net from a Savio corner after the Bremen defence failed to detect his run at the far post. Minutes later, the ex-Real Madrid star turned scorer when he tapped the ball home into an empty net to put Anorthosis briefly in dreamland.
But it wasn't long before Nikolaou turned from hero to villan when he gave away an unecessary penalty after miscontrolling the ball. Diego summarily dispatched the ball from 12 yards to set-up a thrilling finale.
The visitors seemed down and out, but the penalty helped restore their confidence, and they laid seige to the Cypriot goal as the home side clung on to their slender lead. Finally, the Cypriots buckled when Almeida volleyed in from close range on 87 minutes.
Almeida could have sealed victory when a Traianos Dellas mistake brought a one-on-one with the keeper Nagy, who blocked the shot. Then it was the turn of Iraqi Hawar Taher to almost snatch victory when he broke free on goal, but keeper Cristian Vander made a timely block.
The fixture was billed as the biggest game in Cyprus' football history as victory could have secured the club's qualification to the last 16. When the whistle finally blew, the Anorthosis players collapsed on the pitch on desperation knowing a golden opportunity had been missed. Now the tighest group in the competition will go to the wire after Greeks Panathinaikos caused a shock at Inter Milan.
The surprise package in this competition now need a result in Athens against Panathiniakos to continue a remarkable debut appearance on Europe's big stage. Anorthosis lie in third place on six points with only one defeat in five, while Werder stay winless.
The rank outsiders were happy to absorb the pressure as Bremen peppered their goal with long range shots and near-misses inside the box. Anorthosis showed they were no lightweights, having to defend gamely for long periods but always looking dangerous on the break and at set pieces.
The Cypriots had a strong appeal for a penalty turned down on 23 minutes when Portuguese striker Almeida seemed to handle the ball in the box from a Savio corner, but the Spanish referee waved play on.
Bremen created the early chances with Almeida thumping the crossbar on 28 minutes and then clipping a shot wide before half-time. Playmaker Diego was at the heart of Bremen's best moves, always looking to create an opening and not afraid to have a pop at goal from outside the area, as the visitors enjoyed most of the possession. However, Diego picked up a yellow card and will miss the next game against Inter at home.