Thursday, March 8, 2012

How about them APOELs?

Whether you have been following UEFA Champions League (UCL) or not you are probably aware of Lionel Messi's incredible five goal display for Barcelona yesterday helping the Spanish team beat Bayer Leverkusen 10-2 on aggregate to move onto the quarterfinals of the tournament. The soccer pundits on Fox Soccer, Sky Sports, ESPN, and online spent the better part of the day arguing the merits of Messi being the greatest player of all time. Meanwhile, a far greater story unfolded yesterday in the UCL, APOEL also moved on to the quarterfinals. You just read that factoid and had one of two reactions:

1.  Probably some big Russian or Eastern Europe powerhouse, good for them.
2.  APOEL moved on, seriously?

Either reaction likely requires some background on the team just to explain the gravity of their tremendous accomplishment in the tournament.

First off, APOEL is not from Russia, Serbia, Poland, or any of the other random former eastern bloc countries you may have guessed. No sir, they are from the tiny island nation of Cyprus, tucked into the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea just off the south coast of Turkey. The island has a population of 800k people, give or take a few, which puts them somewhere between Montenegro and Estonia as one of the small countries in Europe. APOEL is a Greek name which stands for Athletikos Podosferikos Omilos Ellinon Lefkosias or Athletic Football Club of Greeks of Nicosia and they compete in the Cypriot Championship First Division. My first thought was, there is more than one division of professional soccer on Cyprus; actually there are two divisions with the top one having fourteen teams. APOEL are the best of the best, on Cyprus at least, with twenty-one domestic titles, the most of any team in the league. However, winning the league title doesn't come with the same luxury as winning the Premier League in England.

Unlike the EPL where the top three teams get automatic births to the group stage, APOEL's journey began last July in the second qualifying round where they beat Albanian team Skënderbeu Korçë 0-6 on aggregate in a home-and-away match-up. The third qualifying round saw them beat Slovokian side Slovan Bratislava 2-0 on aggregate to finally make it to the play-off round. Paired in the Champions side of the bracket with Wisła Kraków, APOEL beat the Polish squad 3-2 on aggregate and moved into the group stage; the same round those EPL top three teams were just joining.

By no means a weak set of teams, APOEL ended up in Group G with Zenit St. Petersburg (RUS), Porto (POR), and Shakhtar Donetsk (UKR) with little hope of advancing by pretty much everyone on the planet minus the people of Cyprus. APOEL went on to earn three draws on the road, two wins at home and won the group by tie breaker having beaten second place Zenit St. Petersburg. Improbable to say the least, in the round that saw the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Ajax, Porto, Olympiacos, Lille, Villarreal, and Valencia all bow out of the tournament APOEL moved on to the round of sixteen.

Considered an automatic by into the quarterfinals to whoever drew them, APOEL was paired up with Lyon, the powerhouse of the French Ligue 1. The first match on the road found APOEL losing 1-0 to Lyon leaving the team still in contention when the return leg headed back to Cyprus. So yesterday, need at least one goal to tie APOEL came out of their traditional defensive-minded positioning and attacked with two strikers. The drastic change in strategy caught Lyon off guard as they too were hunkered down hoping for a 0-0 draw to advance. Gustavo Manduca happened to be on the end of a fantastic cross from Constantinos Charalambides, both big names in Cyprus soccer, and turn the ball into the net. However in celebrating with his shirt off he was shown a yellow card which would come back to haunt him in extra time where a hard tackle earned him another yellow and an ejection. APOEL won the match but with each team tied on aggregate after extra time penalty kicks decided the victory. The teams matched on the first three attempts, no one was showing their cards, this was for the quarterfinals ticket. However on Lyon's forth attempt Alexandre Lacazette's shot was blocked by APOEL keeper Dionisis Chiotis and the team pounced on the opportunity by converting their fourth attempt. It all came down to Michel Bastos needing to make it for Lyon to stay alive, but perhaps with the will of the thousand of Cyprus fans packed into the stadium Chiotis chose right again and dove to block the shot sending APOEL into the quarterfinals.

In a time where most Americans are getting ready for college basketball's March Madness, where small and mid-major schools upsetting the big boys is the name of the game, a true Cindarella is making its way through the Champions League. APOEL joins Barcelona, Benifica, and AC Milan as one of the final eight teams in the tournament; the teams will find out their opponent on March 16th.

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