Jovanovic proud, Mourinho full of praise
APOEL Nicosia coach Ivan Jovanovic believes his side are as good as eliminated from the UEFA Champions League following their 3-0 home defeat to Real Madrid in last night's quarter-final first leg in Cyprus. The hosts battled gamely for much of the match but were finally breached in the 74th minute when the impressive Kaka set up Karim Benzema before the Brazilian tucked away fellow substitute Marcelo's excellent cutback eight minutes later.
Benzema's second gave the scoreline an emphatic look despite a mighty defensive effort by APOEL, whose giant-killing run has accounted for Lyon, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk. The need to score three or four times without reply in the return leg at the Bernabeu means APOEL's chances of progressing are slim at best, and Jovanovic concedes the tie is already settled and backed Madrid to go all the way to the final in Munich in May.
"The result was fair," Jovanovic said in the post-match press conference. "We tried to contain them but they upped their tempo towards the end and we could not hold on. Madrid are in the semi-finals, there's no question about that. I even believe that they will reach the final and hopefully win it."
He added: "It was very gratifying to play against a team like Real Madrid. We all saw first-hand what a quality side they are. You could say this game was a crowning moment for the fantastic campaign we produced this season in the competition. My players have done themselves proud throughout this campaign and once again against superior opponents like Madrid."
APOEL lost key defender Marcelo Oliveira to injury inside ten minutes after his standing leg twisted under him as he overcommitted in a tackle. The loss of one of their back line was a blow that Madrid ruthlessly sought to exploit, and it was to the home side's credit that they kept their illustrious opponents at bay for so long.
And APOEL forward Ivan Trickovski said Madrid simply overpowered them in the final stages of the match as the home side ran out of steam. "It was an extremely difficult match, very tough," Trickovski told uefa.com. "Real Madrid are the best team in the world, and it was very difficult for us. We tried to do something, but in the last minutes we conceded three goals. They deserved to win.
"Maybe we lost because we lost our concentration a bit, because they had been attacking for the whole match and creating chances. I think this is possibly the best way to go out of this competition. We have one more game but to finish against Real Madrid is fantastic."
Mourinho praised the job done by his opposite number and, despite his status as one of the hottest properties in football management, admitted that even he could not wring any more performance out of the current APOEL squad. "APOEL made things very difficult for us and we won because we played well," Mourinho told the post-match press conference. "They were strong in defence and showcased great team spirit.
"I'm sure I wouldn't do much better than Jovanovic on this team. We had to do our best to win. I think APOEL are doing a fantastic job. We knew the match would be complicated for them. APOEL made it difficult for us because they have a very serious and hard working team."
Mourinho labelled APOEL as the "most important team" left in the competition, and promised his side will take them seriously in the return leg at the Bernabeu, despite the fact the minnows will need to score at least three times without reply to have any chance of progressing.
"I would like to show them as much respect at the Bernabeu because they are the most important team in this Champions League," Mourinho said. "Any of the other seven teams are pursuing something they've achieved before, but APOEL have never won the title."
Benzema said following his brace: "It was a very difficult game, especially in the first half. The game improved after half-time and we earned a very important victory. We will keep it up in the return leg. I had a very good chance to score before I netted my first, but I tallied two in the end and that's what matters.
"This is an important victory, but this isn't over yet. We want to give a good performance before our fans in the return leg. APOEL are a very tough opponent and made things hard for us. We did very well and took a major step towards winning the tie."