APOEL on cloud nine after Champions League achievement
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia
The smoke pouring out over the field in St. Petersburg couldn’t prevent APOEL from making sure its fans could pour out to celebrate on the streets of Nicosia.
APOEL became the first Greek Cypriot team to reach the knockout stage of the Champions League by holding Zenit St. Petersburg to a 0-0 draw on Nov. 23 in a game that was twice interrupted by flares covering the pitch in smoke.
The result caps one of the most surprising group campaigns in the history of the Champions League, as APOEL remained unbeaten in five matches to top Group G with nine points, one ahead of Zenit with one round to go.
“It’s a fantastic result for us,” APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic said. “We managed to do something that even three months ago we had no right to even dream and today we’re among the best 16 teams in Europe.”
The draw set off wild celebrations back on their small home island, where supporters in cars draped in APOEL’s flag honked their horns and bellowed chants praising the team through Nicosia’s downtown.
“I’m sure that APOEL fans today are experiencing some of the greatest moments in the club’s history,” Jovanovic said. “I think our result can be an example for teams from non-football and small countries.”
Zenit moved closer to the knockout stage as well, although two-time champion FC Porto beat Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 to keep alive its chances of advancing. Zenit is one point ahead of Porto and only needs a draw in Portugal in the last round to advance.
APOEL midfielder Constantinos Charalambides hailed the victory as the biggest moment in the history of the club.
“This is the biggest day and the biggest moment in the history of this football club,” he was quoted as saying in the UEFA website. “I don’t think anyone has really realized what has happened, especially as we were in such a tough group. I would like to thank our fans in Cyprus, and especially those who came to watch us in St Petersburg. It is a big moment and everyone deserves this because of the hard work that everyone has put in.
“This is the greatest moment of everyone’s life in our team tonight.”
Brazilian player Gustavo Manduca was also at odds with finding the right words for the victory.
“This night for me is a miracle. This is the best moment of my career,” he said. “I never imagined that this success would happen when I arrived in Cyprus. I always hoped that I could play in the Champions League but to go through is a big plus. This is the greatest night in the history of the club.”
APOEL entered the competition with few expectations of improving on its only other Champions League campaign two years ago when it failed to win a game and finished last in its group. But this year it wasted not time to show it should be taken seriously, winning 2-1 against Zenit in its first group game before following that up with an identical home victory against Porto this month.
The Greek Cypriot club - which has an annual budget of about 10 million euros - was on the back foot for much of the Zenit draw, but the Russians could not capitalize on numerous scoring opportunities.
Zenit striker Alexander Bukharov tested goalkeeper Urko Pardo with a header just three minutes into the game. Seven minutes later, Viktor Fayzulin fired from 25 meters but Pardo blocked his low shot.
Pardo stopped another header from Bukhrov header in the 31st and stretched his right hand to stop Fayzulin’s shot from inside the box in the 40th - Zenit’s best scoring opportunity in the first half.
The match was suspended for three minutes when flares were lit by Zenit supporters in the 31st minute, covering the pitch with dense smoke, but restarted about six minutes later.
The visitors managed just one dangerous counter attack before the break when Gustavo Manduca broke down the right flank and crossed to Ailton who missed the target from close range.
“We have played a good match but we failed to convert on key moments,” Spalletti said. “We played with a tough opponent and we practically did not allow them to come close to scoring.”
Zenit plays at Porto in the final round on Dec. 6, while APOEL will host Shakhtar.