Apoel hope enthusiasm can close gap on mighty Madrid

Not even the tiny Cypriot club truly believe they will beat Real – but they are going to give it a right go. Robin Scott-Elliot reports

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The Independent Online

As Madrid's monied men pore over their plans for a $11bn Real theme park, Apoel Nicosia have already taken residence in a fantasy land of their own. Tonight in the Pancyprian Gymnastic Association stadium in the Cypriot capital, Apoel, with an annual budget that might stretch to Ronaldo's left foot, host Europe's richest, most garlanded club. It is a fixture of contrasts, extreme contrasts and one that stands out all the more given this is the sort of contest the group stages of the Champions League were designed to weed out.

As the likes of the Manchester clubs, Arsenal and Internazionale busy themselves with domestic duties, Apoel – an acronym for the Athletic football club of the Greeks of Nicosia – are relishing a first experience of the quarter-finals. "Sometimes," said Phivos Erotokritou, the club's president, "enthusiasm and will to win can bridge the gap."

Here is the gap: it will be Apoel's 50th match in Europe's premier competition; Real, who have lifted the iconic trophy nine times, are looking for a 200th win in their 344th game. Apoel work to an annual budget of €10m (£8.5m) and spent a club record €1m to recruit Ailton, the Brazilian striker; Real have just topped football's money league for a seventh successive year and pay their record signing around £11m a year having spent £80m recruiting Ronaldo in the first place.

 



"In this case," said Ivan Jovanovic, Apoel's coach, "surely we have to play the perfect game. But we don't know if that will give us the result we want."

One more contrast from a long list: tonight there will be a full house of 23,000 in the GSP stadium, just over a quarter of the number expected for the return in Madrid, but those home supporters will engage utterly in the fixture. It is home form that has ushered Apoel into such company. A banner proclaiming "Feel the terror of Nicosia" greeted the Lyon players when they ran out with a 1-0 round of 16, first-leg advantage three weeks ago. It may not match the Galatasary greeting of "Welcome to Hell" but some decent sides have failed to win their own war on Nicosian terror.

Lyon were beaten 1-0, and then eliminated on penalties, while Zenit St Petersburg and Porto also lost in Cyprus as Apoel emerged as surprise winners of their group. Their sole home defeat came against Shakhtar Donetsk with qualification for the knockout stages already assured.

Topping Group G was their second qualification of a long campaign. It began in Albania in July with victory over Skenderbeu and continued through Bratislava and Krakow before they joined the continent's elite. In the draw for the last 16 they were the team everyone wanted, come the time to fill the glass jars for the last eight even more so, regardless of what they did to Lyon.

"Things are getting serious now," said Dionisios Chiotis, the goalkeeper turned matchwinner against Lyon after saving two penalties in the shoot out. Chiotis is Greek, one of nine different nationalities in an eclectic squad assembled by Jovanovic. "We're a small club in Europe, but we have a big heart," said the 49-year-old.

It was Jovanovic who made Ailton the club's record signing two years ago. He is one of six Brazilians on the club's books, along with an Italian, an Algerian, a Paraguayan, a Bosnian, a Spaniard, a handful of Portuguese and a sprinkling of Cypriots. The Italian is Esteban Solari, who is in reality from Argentina but in today's fashion for nation-swapping plays under an EU passport. Solari's brother, Santiago, won the Champions League with Real a decade ago. "I believe there will be a piece of his heart rooting for my team," said Solari yesterday.

Solari is the club's domestic top scorer but it is Ailton, usually playing as the sole striker, who has led the way in the Champions League, scoring seven times in the qualifying rounds and the group games. Apoel are not an expansive side. They average 42 per cent possession, comfortably the least of the quarter-finalists. In the first leg against Lyon, Apoel had the ball for little more than a third of the game, yet conceded only once.

"I have achieved almost everything in the last four years with Apoel," said Jovanovic, "but I still have a dream. To eliminate Real."

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