By Neil Jones

There will be a Cypriot team in the last 8 of the Champions League, after APOEL Nicosia recorded a historic penalty shootout victory over French side Lyon.

Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, APOEL levelled the tie through the journeyman Brazilian Gustavo Manduca in the 9th minute of the second. Manduca was later sent off after receiving two yellow cards– his first, laughably, came for removing his shirt in celebrating his goal – but goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis saved from both Alexandre Lacazette and Michel Bastos in the shootout to send the underdogs through to the quarter finals.

“I feel joy and relief,” Chiotis said. “We’ve achieved something no one would have thought possible at the start of the season. Things are getting serious now.

“We need to wait to see who else gets into the quarter-finals, but there isn’t one team we would prefer to play – just let’s not get Barcelona!”

It is easy to see what Chiotis means. A game against, for example, Napoli or Marseille would give APOEL a more realistic chance of reaching the semi-finals, but the truth is this side deserves its chance against a Barcelona or a Real Madrid. They have done it the hard way, and the rewards are following.

APOEL’s Champions League road began on July 13 of last year, when they beat Albanian champions Skënderbeu 2-0 in front of a miniscule crowd in Korçë. They then saw off the more serious challenges of Slovan Bratislava and Wisła Kraków to secure a place in the group stages for just the second time.

There, they were paired with Eastern European heavyweights Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg, as well as FC Porto. It looked a daunting group.

APOEL, though, didn’t just compete in it, they topped it. Unbeaten in their opening five group games, they had secured a last 16 spot with one to spare.

That fixture, a 2-0 defeat at home to Shakhtar, is the only time they have been beaten at their sub-23,000-capacity GSP Stadium in seven European matches this season. Their home form is carrying them to new, barely-imaginable, heights.

Afterwards Manduca, who will miss the first leg of the quarter final after his red card, was in no mood to feel sorry for himself. The 31-year-old was not expected to feature at all against Lyon – he had undergone groin surgery less than six weeks ago – but having helped his side through, his words summed up the general feeling around the club.

“Today was an amazing night,” he said. “It will live in our memories for many years.

“We’ve made history for this country and we’re proud of that. We want to enjoy this moment.”

Enjoy it they should. APOEL began the campaign ranked 77th in Europe by UEFA, below the likes of Fulham and Bolton Wanderers.

They were 62nd at the last count, closing in on teams such as Paris St Germain, Athletic Bilbao and Galatasaray.

Coach Ivan Jovanović operates on a budget of around £7m per year – or the annual salary of a Carlos Tévez, say – their top earners are paid no more than £7,000 per week and Aílton, the club’s record signing, cost less than £800,000 when joining from FC Copenhagen 18 months ago.

Aílton is one of six Brazilians (Manduca, of course, is another) in Jovanović’s squad. Macedonia, Greece, Paraguay, Argentina, Portugal and Belgium are all represented.

Nicosia may be the world’s only divided capital city, split between Turks and Greek-Cypriots by the famous ‘Green Line’, which runs along the banks of the Pedieos River, but no such barriers exist in APOEL’s dressing room.

Togetherness is the buzz word, and it’s effects are clear for all to see. APOEL lack stars, but have conceded just seven goals in their last seven Champions League matches. Their success is no fluke.

At coaching level, there is a continuity almost unheard of in the Cypriot game, where managers come and go at an alarming rate. There have been 14 managerial changes in the Laiki Bank League during the current campaign alone, but Jovanović has been happily installed at APOEL since 2008.

The 49-year-old, a former midfielder who made a modest career as a player in both the former Yugoslavia and Greece, is in his second spell with the club, and has admitted to benefiting from the zero-interference policy of his chairman, Phivos Erotokritou.

Transfer policy and team selection – unusually in the age of consultants, agents, directors of football and recruitment committees – are dictated solely by the manager. Erotokritou is openly ignorant of the nuances of the modern game, happy to allow Jovanović the freedom to operate.

It works. APOEL have won two of the last three titles, as well as the 2008 Cypriot Cup. Jovanović has been coach of the season in each of the last three years. He is, by some distance, the most successful manager in APOEL’s history.

“We don’t feel pressure, we feel motivation,” says the Serb. “We’re a small club but we have a big heart and good, hard-working, players with a great desire to achieve something really important.”

Now, his side are on the verge of that. Chairman Erotokritou confirmed that the club had pocketed around £10m by simply reaching the group stages of this season’s competition. Progression to the last 8, where the likes of Milan, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Benfica wait, is likely to more than double that.

APOEL’s only other appearance in the Champions League proper, two seasons ago, virtually saved the club from financial meltdown.

There was the ignominy of a UEFA fine (€40,000) for racist chanting by supporters during a defeat to Chelsea, but fiscally the campaign was a success. Debts were paid, and foundations laid.

This time around, it is glory, not money, on the agenda.

“We know who we are.” says Erotokritou, happy that the club has an identity of which it can be proud. Now it is Europe’s turn to find out.

You can follow Neil on Twitter here @NeilJonesEcho

 

 

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