Angry though he was at Chelsea's performance, Carlo Ancelotti reflected, as he pondered his old club Milan's home defeat to FC Zurich last night, that there are worse things than playing badly and winning. "I'm sad, but it shows there are no easy games in the Champions League," he said. However, this tepid performance, coming after Saturday's surrender at Wigan, has worried him, especially with Liverpool at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
Ahead, and seemingly cruising after Nicolas Anelka's 18th-minute goal, Chelsea gradually lost control of this tie against eager but limited opposition. But for a sharp save from Petr Cech and some poor finishing by the Cypriot champions, they would have been held to a draw, or worse. In the event, thanks to Porto's defeat of Atletico Madrid, they lead Group D by three points with the struggling Spanish team due in London next.
Qualification to the knock-out stages now seems virtually assured, not least because Porto seem the only credible opposition, but further progress will require much better displays. Having initially dominated their opponents Chelsea conceded the initiative so alarmingly that Ancelotti admitted Apoel deserved a draw. Absentees were a factor, but a club of Chelsea's financial muscle should be able to compensate for the loss, through suspension or injury, of Jose Bosingwa, Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack and John Obi Mikel.
The less stellar Branislav Ivanovic, Salomon Kalou and Juliano Belletti came in to the side with the Brazilian partnering Michael Essien in midfield. This allowed Frank Lampard to operate between two advanced wide players, Florent Malouda and Kalou, with Anelka leading the line.
This the Frenchman did superbly for an hour, capping a performance of impressive sharpness and movement with his goal, curled in from the edge of the area after Belletti had broken to the byline and pulled the ball back.
At that stage Chelsea were comfortable. Essien, Ivanovic, Lampard and Kalou had all had chances. However, Dionisis Chiotis was tested by none of them and with Ashley Cole and Anelka wasting further opportunities Apoel went in to the break just a goal adrift.
This seemed to boost their confidence, and that of a raucous home support. This was a big night for Cyprus. Not only was this Apoel's home Champions League bow but it was also a chance to remind the world of the Greek Cypriot plight. This is a partitioned city in a divided island and from the towering main stand of this decade-old stadium could be seen an extraordinary sight. Glittering on the hills north of Nicosia was the outline of the crescent and star of the Turkish flag, picked out in lights.
It was a reminder, a sinister one to locals despite the current relative thaw in relations, that just a few miles from here is occupied territory. The signs wishing "Good luck Chelsea" in the cafes and bars of the Turkish quarter were not just a marketing device to lure in those travelling fans who had crossed the Green Line UN buffer zone, but also a heartfelt wish.
The Greek Cypriot response was a long banner facing the TV cameras which told the world, "Cyprus is Greek." Were Muzzy Izzet still a Chelsea player that might have made the atmosphere intimidating, in the event it was merely lively.
Chelsea's first-half superiority failed to dim the decibel level even if Apoel created few significant opportunities with Constantinos Charalambidis wasting the main one, created after Essien had let his man run off him. The volume increased as the second period wore on and it became clear that Chelsea were content to sit back, protect their lead, and look to counter.
This, though, invited pressure from Apoel whose growing confidence was illustrated by a switch to 4-3-3. Chelsea struggled to cope with substitute Kamil Kosowski, on the fight flank, and the Pole created a superb opening for Savvas Poursaitidis after 64 minutes. The full-back appeared to freeze with fear but eventually got off a shot which took a deflection off John Terry before Cech saved with his feet.
In an attempt to keep hold of the ball, Ancelotti introduced Deco, then Joe Cole, but his team continued to look disjointed. They should have put the tie to bed with 10 minutes left but neither Malouda nor Lampard could convert Ivanovic's cut-back. That could have proved expensive as, with six minutes to go, Charalambidis met Kosowski's deep cross. However, he put it into the side netting, leaving Apoel to take the plaudits, and Chelsea to steal the points. Ancelotti must settle for that, for now, but as he told the players in the dressing room, they will need to play better, starting on Sunday.
Apoel Nicosia (4-4-2): Chiotis; Poursaitidis, Kontis, Grncarov, Haxhi; Charalambidis (Jean Paulista, 85), Morais, Michael (Breska, 79), Pinto; Alexandrou (Kosowski, 58), Mirosavljevic. Substitutes not used: Kissas (gk), Papathanasiou, Satsias, Elia.
Chelsea (4-1-2-3): Cech; Ivanovic, Carvalho, Terry, A Cole; Belletti (Deco, 68); Essien, Lampard; Kalou (J Cole, 79), Anelka, Malouda. Substitutes not used: Hilario (gk), Zhirkov, Sturridge, Hutchinson, Bruma.
Referee: B Layec (France).
Chelsea previous result: 15 Sept Chelsea 1 FC Porto 0.
Chelsea remaining fixtures: 21 Oct Atletico Madrid (h), 3 Nov Atletico Madrid (a), 25 Nov FC Porto (a), 8 Dec Apoel Nicosia (h).
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