APOEL Nicosia’s surge into the last-eight of the Champions League has been extraordinary.
The Cypriot club are the perfect example of an underdog story. They have already achieved the unexpected yet somehow you sense their story is incomplete.
True enough, they have very little chance of progressing against nine-times European champions Real Madrid. The magnificent Cristiano Ronaldo and co will more than likely knock them out.
The La Liga leaders, with coach Jose Mourinho searching for his third Champions League title with three different clubs after Porto and Internazionale, will be desperate to reach the final and a possible date with El Classico rivals Barcelona.
It is the final all but those following the rest of the quarter-final clubs want. Arguably the two best clubs in world football, on current form, going head-to-head for European football’s top prize.
But they won’t be looking forward to the Nicosia tie as Real have everything to lose. Nicosia are massive underdogs, probably as big an outsider as there has ever been at this stage in the competition. It is possible Madrid could become complacent, that they could take Ivan Jovanovic’s side lightly.
But that is not a danger according to Madrid midfielder Sami Khedira who said: “We know Apoel are a good team. They have tremendous team spirit and eliminated strong sides like Lyon.”
But Madrid have to contend with the loss of key midfielder Xabi Alonso, suspended for the first leg in Nicosia. The former Liverpool man is Mourinho’s playmaker and mainstay. His absence could be disruptive while his experience – he won the competition with Liverpool in 2005 – will be a miss.
But in truth Madrid should ease into a semi-final against either Marseille or Bayern Munich.
Ronaldo alone cost a world record fee of £80million when he moved to the Bernabeu from Manchester United in 2009. In contrast, Nicosia’s record signing cost just £850,000 while their overall club budget is under £8.5million. Who knows what Madrid’s is?
The Bernabeu holds 85,000 while Nicosia’s GSP Stadium allows in only 23,000.
It shouldn’t happen, but Apoel’s run so far will give them hope. Goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis saved two penalties in a nerve-wracking shoot-out against multiple quarter-finalists Lyon in the last-16.
They came through a group including Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk – all fancied far more to progress.
Their Champions League journey this season actually started way back in June last year, when they would have been happy to just be a part of the competition. But with nothing to lose, and with confidence high following a run of three games unbeaten following their win over Lyon, Nicosia will give it their all.
What they fail to match-up to in quality against Madrid, they will more than make up with passion, pride, and with that chief underdog quality of determination.
Mourinho’s Madrid are stepping into the unknown somewhat, which is exactly what Nicosia have been doing for the whole campaign.
That campaign will surely end in two games time, particularly with the away leg up second, but Nicosia have ensured their name will forever be associated with the Champions League.
Tags: APOEL Nicosia, Champion's League, Cristiano Ronaldo, Real Madrid