APOEL target history in St Petersburg
It would be entirely appropriate for unfancied Cypriot team APOEL Nicosia to enjoy the sweet taste of success in St Petersburg on Wednesday as the club was formed in a confectionery shop 85 years ago. The minnows that have lit up Europes richest competition need to secure only a point against Russian giants Zenit to secure an unlikely passage to the last 16 of the Champions League - a feat no other Cypriot team has achieved before.
That gathering of 40 people in a Nicosia cake shop could never have envisaged the peaks that the team would scale in Europe. Even though the island's fans are fiercely partisan, almost the entire population will be rooting for the men in orange when they take to the field at the Petrovsky Stadium. Around 1,500 travelling supporters are expected to cheer on their team.
"This is a European tie of exceptional importance because everyone knows of the possibility that we can qualify," APOEL captain Constantinos Charalambides told the clubs website."I want to believe the team will respond to the challenge and face the difficult task ahead and I'm optimistic we can make that leap, which will please everyone," he added.
APOEL have two games left - Zenit away and Shakhtar Donetsk of Ukraine at home - to secure that precious and very lucrative point. "If we get a point, it will be the biggest moment of every player's career and for the history of the club, but we must respect this team (Zenit)," said Gustavo Manduca on APOELs website. "These are the most important two games in our lives and we will do everything in our power to get a result."
Although nobody gave APOEL a chance of getting through to the last 16, they now sit undefeated at the top of Group G, above Zenit, Shakhtar and FC Porto of Portugal. APOEL is the most decorated team in Cypriot football and a founder member of Cyprus Football Association.
It is their second attempt at qualifying from the group stage after being squeezed out by Chelsea, Porto and Athletico Madrid two years ago. Their latest odyssey began with a qualifier against KS Skenderbeu in Albania back in early July. The club's budget is dwarfed by that of their Russian opponents but Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic has proved a shrewd tactician making his side hard to beat and comfortable in possession.
Zenit were undone at the start of this campaign when they took the lead against APOEL in Nicosia only to be sunk by two quick-fire goals from Brazilian duo Manduca and Ailton in the 73rd and 75th minutes. And APOELs first win in the Champions League proved to be no fluke, with away draws to Shakhtar and Porto followed by victory at home over the Portuguese team, again after coming from behind.
The clubs nickname is Thrylos (legend) and the players can claim immortality if they get a result in Russia that could see them pitted against the European giants of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Inter Milan or Manchester United. However their exploits in Europe have taken their toll on the Cyprus league champions, who currently lie in third place, six points behind their fierce Nicosia rivals Omonia, who lead the way.
Going into the game, APOEL have fitness worries over talisman striker Ailton and right back Savvas Poursaitidis. If Ailton is deemed not ready to play, then Trickovski could play upfront and Marcinho be deployed as an attacking midfielder, while Nectarios Solomou should replace Poursaitidis if he fails to overcome injury.