APOEL faith in Brazilian magic may worry Lyon
When APOEL FC cross the white line against Lyon in the Champions League at Stade Gerland on Tuesday, they will be hoping their Brazilian magic can cause yet another upset.
Arguably the biggest sporting event in Cypriot history, this knockout-stage tie has been much anticipated on a football-mad island where international achievement is rare.
The minnows that have lit up Europe's richest competition finished top of their group to secure an unlikely passage to the last 16 of the Champions League -- a feat no other Cypriot team has achieved before.
Their only defeat in Group G, which included FC Porto and Zenit Saint Petersburg, was a 2-0 loss at home to Shakhtar Donetsk after qualification had already been achieved.
And the team from Nicosia, with its spattering of silky Brazilians, gritty Cypriots and determined Portuguese, are looking to extend the fairytale a little while longer over the next two games against Remi Garde's OL.
Lyon have a proud home record in the competition at this stage -- having only lost once, to Roma in 2007 -- while APOEL have only lost once away in the competition, so far conceding just three goals in six games.
In terms of budget and pedigree, APOEL are the smallest club left in the competition but they possess quality within their ranks in star Brazilian striker Ailton, his compatriot Gustavo Manduca and tricky Macedonian winger Ivan Triskovski.
As the lone striker, Ailton has scored vital goals in this competition and held the line well in a well-drilled side, who have proven very hard to break down.
Although not the fastest of teams, APOEL are adept at keeping possession and carving out an opening on the counter-attack, and the number nine is crucial to this tactic.
A 700,000-euro ($920,000) buy from FC Copenhagen in 2010, Ailton scored four goals in the qualifying rounds, snatched the winner at home to Zenit in the group stage and scored in both games against Porto.
His impressive tally of seven in the competition so far began in modest surroundings in a qualifier against KS Skenderbeu in Albania last July.
The 27-year-old fans' favourite was out of action for a few months with a hernia but is coming back to full match sharpness, while midfielder Manduca was another key absentee during the Champions League break as APOEL's form wobbled.
Both should be starters in France.
"It's a big opportunity for us, it's a big game. Everybody is focused and everybody wants to play," Manduca told the APOEL website.
"We will try our best to bring back a good result from France."
In their last game before the trip to Lyon, APOEL needed a brace from Cypriot international Constantinos Charalambides to secure a 2-1 victory at home to lowly Ethnikos Achnas.
The Cypriot champions went top of the table on Friday, after some indifferent recent form.
Serbian coach Ivan Jovanovic has come under criticism for APOEL's recent lucklustre performances and for not strengthening the squad during the January transfer window.
Helder Sousa, a 34-year-old Portuguese midfielder, was the only new addition in the transfer window.
In his defence, Jovanovic argues that his team are a victim of their heroics in Europe, raising expectations that they can easily destroy all before them at home.
"It's wrong to compare APOEL with big European teams," he says. "People consider our run in Europe as something normal, but it isn't.
"A lot of things have to fall into place to achieve something like this. You might never be be able to do it."
APOEL, the most decorated team in Cypriot football and a founder member of the Cyprus Football Association, were formed in a confectionery shop 85 years ago.
Success in Europe has been particularly sweet, as nobody gave the Cypriot underdogs a sporting chance.
Now the fans dare to dream of going even further. After all, this is a club whose nickname, Thrylos, means legend.
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