Sweetshop boys APOEL aim for Real upset
When Cypriot giant-killers APOEL face the mighty Real Madrid on Tuesday, some might call the Champions League quarter-final, first leg tie the biggest mismatch ever at this stage of the competition.
Real's multi-million Euro Galacticos will take on a team that usually falls under Europe's football radar. Unkind observers could tag the contest as one between the journeymen no hopers of APOEL and the all conquering superstars from Spain.
But throughout this campaign the unfancied Cypriot have defied the odds in rewriting the history books. APOEL have come through the qualifying rounds to become the first Cypriot team to reach this stage of the competition.
More than 6,000 fans turned up at Nicosia's GSP stadium on Friday to snap up the last 300 tickets. The 23,000 capacity ground could easily have been sold-out three times over such is the interest in this game.
Obviously the star attraction for many Cypriots is the chance to see one of the world's best players in action - Cristiano Ronaldo.
In terms of budget and status, APOEL are the smallest club left in the competition, especially in contrast to Real Madrid. And APOEL's financial clout pales into insignificance when compared to the planet's richest football club with a €490 million budget.
Goal machine Ronaldo is the world's most expensive player costing Real a record €80 million on an annual salary exceeding €13 million. APOEL's record signing is Brazilian striker Ailton who cost €700,000 from Copenhagen in 2010 and their highest paid player Esteban Solari doesn't make in a year what Ronaldo earns in a week. At APOEL most players' salaries do not exceed €13,000 a month.
Talisman Ailton scored four goals in the qualifying rounds, snatched the winner at home to Zenit in the group stage and scored in both games against Porto. His impressive tally of seven in the competition so far began in modest surroundings in a qualifier against KS Skenderbeu in Albania last July.
Real's transfer budget this season was €130 million - dwarfing the Cypriot club's entire spending of around €8.6 million a year and the most APOEL spent on a player this season was Kaka from Hertha Berlin for €260,000. Helder Sousa, a 34-year-old Portuguese midfielder, was the only new addition in the transfer window costing €90,000.
Needless to say, a triumphant run in Europe has generated more than the €22 million for APOEL which is enough to keep the club going for the next three seasons.
So far APOEL have played without trepidation in this competition and insiders at the club say the players will not be overawed by the occasion. It was the draw - along with Barcelona - that APOEL wanted to avoid but it will be the greatest test yet as to how far they have come on this European adventure.
The minnows that have lit up Europe's richest competition finished top of their group and then secured an unlikely passage to the last eight by beating Lyon 4-3 on penalties after 1-1 on aggregate. Their only defeat in Group G, which included FC Porto and Zenit Saint Petersburg, was a 2-0 loss at home to Shakhtar Donetsk after qualification had already been achieved.
Much of the credit must go to Serb manager Ivan Jovanovic who has put together a team of unheralded Brazilians, Portuguese and Cypriots. In their last game before Real, the Cypriot champions played their own El Clasico against arch cross-town rivals Omonia and drew 0-0 to stay third in the table.
Gustavo Manduca - scorer against Lyon - is suspended for Tuesday's game but influential Portuguese midfielder Helio Pinto returns to the side.
APOEL, the most decorated team in Cypriot football and a founder member of the Cyprus Football Association, were formed in a confectionery shop 85 years ago.
For underdogs APOEL to achieve the unthinkable and progress to the last four at the expense of the nine-time winners it would be a remarkable sporting success story. After all, this is a club whose nickname, Thrylos, means legend.