Former manager enjoying Apoel crack at the big time

Tommy Cassidy amazed his old Cypriot club with passionate fans have reached knockout stage

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The Independent Online

Whether or not Uefa's president, Michel Platini, determined to democratise European football, had a wry smile about the Premier League's top two clubs failing to make the last 16 of this season's Champions League, he must have laughed out loud at the presence there of Apoel Nicosia.

Even the former Newcastle and Northern Ireland international Tommy Cassidy, who knows the club as well as any Briton after six years as player and manager in the 1980s, says: "I can't believe how successful they are. The knockout stage! I still haven't recovered from the idea."

Tonight Apoel, ranked exactly 100th in Champions League standings before the season began and much the smallest club to venture this far, play away to the French side Lyons, who have reached this stage for the past nine seasons. It looks to be a step too far but then so did just about every game last autumn after they had beaten Wisla Krakow to reach a group containing Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk. Apoel drew away to all three and beat the first named pair at their 23,000-capacity stadium, losing only to Shakhtar when they had already tied up qualification. Chelsea may remember them too after being held 2-2 at Stamford Bridge in 2009, with 6,000 Cypriots threatening to lift the roof.

From a time when only two foreign players per club were allowed, Apoel have developed into a modern, multi-national side under the Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic, paying wages of up to £20,000 a week thanks to a millionaire president. There are Portuguese, Brazilian, north African and eastern European representatives, including the former Chelsea midfielder Nuno Morais and Tijani Belaid, signed from Hull City.

The fans' passion is one constant factor since Cassidy accepted an offer almost 30 years ago to leave Burnley with his career winding down: "It was the idea of the lifestyle on this little holiday island that I went for, expecting a few hundred people at the games. But the football fanaticism was unreal. It just took over everything. We lost about 10 games in five years and after every one of those games I had a police escort home. My wife always knew the result before I arrived home because if we won supporters would escort me and if we lost she'd hear the police sirens."

After being appointed manager two years later Cassidy signed Terry McDermott, a triple European Cup winner. "Terry's game was all about running," he said. "For four months in the heat he was rubbish. Then one day Terry rang me, thrilled it was raining, and in the end he won us the title."

It was only Apoel's second championship, but politics soon raised their ugly head. After reaching the second round of the European Cup, they were drawn against Besiktas of Turkey and the government refused to let them play. "I told them I was a football manager, not a politician," Cassidy recalled.

His downfall was a new chairman who wanted to pick the team and sacked him for not accepting "advice" on who to play at right-back. He left in 1989 and after coaching on both sides of the Irish border made his home back on Tyneside, opening a sports shop in Killingworth and taking over as Blyth Spartans' manager two months ago.

He still says Cyprus is "a big part" of his life and the episode will provide more than one chapter for a book he is writing that also promises material on Newcastle's failures, Northern Ireland's glorious 1982 World Cup and four years as George Best's room-mate ("You can imagine what that was like.")

Tonight he will be in front of his television hoping that Apoel can do enough to remain in contention for the second leg in front of those fanatical supporters. They received a double boost at the weekend when the Brazilian striker Ailton, the club's most expensive signing at just under €1m (£840,000), returned after two months, while Lyons were suffering an unexpected home defeat by lowly Caen. To reach the quarter-finals would be, as Cassidy says, "unbelievable". Belief, though, is not something the modern Apoel lack.

 

Europe's best are back: Lowdown on the last 16

 

Bayer Leverkusen v Barcelona

Tonight, 7.45pm, BayArena

Odds: Leverkusen 7-1, Barça 4-9

Top scorers: Eren Derdiyok (9), Lionel Messi (37)

The European champions have slipped to 10 points behind Real Madrid in La Liga, so surely are now focusing entirely on retaining the European Cup: they would be the first team since Milan in 1991 to do so. Midfielder Sergio Busquets will undergo a late fitness test. Leverkusen are back in sixth place in the Bundesliga, having won three of their last 10. They will be without Michael Ballack who is injured.

 

Milan v Arsenal

Tomorrow, 7.45pm, San Siro

Odds: Milan 11-10, Arsenal 11-4

Top scorers: Zlatan Ibrahimovic (21), Robin van Persie (27)

Arsenal return to face the team they beat in the same stage in 2008. Then, they drew 0-0 at the Emirates but won 2-0 at San Siro, with goals from Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor. Milan were at the time reigning European champions, and are arguably weaker now, although they are the current Serie A leaders. Milan hope that Alexandre Pato, Kevin-Prince Boateng, Alessandro Nesta and Mathieu Flamini will be fit.

 

CSKA Moscow v Real Madrid

21 February, 5pm, Luzhniki Stadium

Odds: CSKA 11-2, Madrid 4-9

Top scorers: Seydou Doumbia (32), Cristiano Ronaldo (33)

Jose Mourinho's push for a third European Cup takes him to CSKA Moscow, whom he beat in the quarter-finals on the way to his 2010 triumph with Internazionale. While Madrid's focus might be on wrenching La Liga back from Barcelona, they have the players to take a good result away from the Luzhniki Stadium. Like Zenit, CSKA have not played competitive football since early December.

 

Marseilles v Internazionale

22 February, 7.45pm, Stade Vélodrome

Odds: Marseilles 7-5, Inter 7-4

Top scorers: Loïc Rémy (10), Diego Milito (13)

Both of these European giants are struggling in their domestic leagues. Didier Deschamps' Marseilles are sixth, 11 points from re-qualifying for the Champions League, while Internazionale are in fifth under another former Chelsea man, Claudio Ranieri.

 

Lyons v Apoel Nicosia

Tonight, 7.45pm, Stade de Gerland

Odds: Lyons 4-9, APOEL 7-1

Top scorers: Bafetimbi Gomis (14), four Apoel players (8)

The most surprising side in the last 16, Apoel Nicosia fought their way out of a group with Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk. They will attempt an even bigger upset tonight against the French club Lyons, who have never matched their long Ligue 1 hegemony with suitable performances in Europe. Rémi Garde's side are currently 11 points behind Ligue 1 leaders Paris St-Germain.

 

Zenit St Petersburg v Benfica

Tomorrow, 5pm, Petrovsky Stadium

Odds: Zenit 8-5, Benfica 9-5

Top scorers: Alexander Kerzhakov (16), Oscar Cardozo (14)

Benfica travel to Russia unbeaten in both the Champions League and the Portuguese league so far this season. The Eagles, though, will be without midfielder Javi Garcia. Zenit have been on a competitive break since early December, as the Russian Premier League does not re-start until next month. Danny, their brilliant Portuguese playmaker, was ruled out for eight months by a recent knee injury.

 

Napoli v Chelsea

21 February, 5pm, San Paolo

Odds: Napoli 6-4, Chelsea 13-7

Top scorers: Edinson Cavani (19), Frank Lampard (11)

Despite sitting in seventh in Serie A, Napoli are one of Europe's fastest counter-attacking sides. Cavani, Ezequiel Lavezzi and Marek Hamsik could well rip through Chelsea in the fierce atmosphere of the Stadio San Paolo. While the Champions League is usually Chelsea's preoccupation, this year re-qualification through a top-four Premier League finish must surely be Andre Villas-Boas' priority.

 

Basle v Bayern Munich

22 February, 7.45pm, St Jakob-Park

Odds: Basle 9-2, Bayern 1-2

Top scorers: Alexander Frei (16), Mario Gomez (24)

Even beyond the fact that this year's final is in Munich, Bayern are the likeliest side to upset either of the Spanish giants this year. They have real quality players, and the heart of the German national side in Manuel Neuer, Philipp Lahm, Thomas Müller and Bastian Schweinsteiger. Basle are a lively side, but should not be a threat.

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