Commentary

APOEL's improbable run continues

The Cypriot side has reached the Champions League quarters

Updated: March 8, 2012, 1:39 PM ET
By Michael Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Europe's sports newspapers had two major stories from Wednesday night's Champions League action. The first was Lionel Messi's incredible five-goal haul at home to Leverkusen. The second was APOEL's progression to the quarterfinals after beating Lyon on penalties.

To illustrate how bizarre it is for the two to find themselves together on the front page, you have to go back to mid-July. Messi was recovering from a brilliant man-of-the-match display in the Copa America against Costa Rica, one of his finest performances in a national team jersey, in front of his home fans in a major tournament. The only barrier to his undisputed status as the greatest player in history is apparently his performance at international level, so he was the focus of the world.

[+] EnlargeApoel Celebrates
Mike Hutchings/AFP/Getty ImagesAPOEL celebrates after it defeated Lyon to reach the Champions League quarterfinals.

Meanwhile, 7,500 miles away in Albania, APOEL was already starting its Champions League campaign with a 2-0 win over Skenderbeu Korce. It was the first of six qualification matches it had to play before even reaching the group stage.

When APOEL qualified, no one expected it to get much further. Before the draw, one journalist divided the 32 teams into nine categories, ranging from "favorites" to "whipping boys." There was only one side in each of these categories -- Barcelona the favorites, APOEL the whipping boys. It was an entirely fair categorization, and only underlines how much of a shock APOEL's progression is, to the point it's sharing media time with Pep Guardiola's side.

APOEL has no obvious star player, no wealthy benefactor that entitles the team to beat a side like Lyon. The secrets of APOEL's success are the old-fashioned, simple qualities -- team spirit, organization and determination.

The second-round tie could have been over by the first leg. The Cypriot side travelled to Lyon and was absolutely thrashed by every measure aside from goals -- it managed just 36 percent of possession, and a lone shot in the final few minutes. It managed to escape with a 1-0 defeat, but Lyon really should have put the tie to bed -- and how coach Remi Garde must regret not doing so, with his contract now unlikely to be renewed in the summer.

But this gave APOEL a new challenge. It had gotten this far by being the plucky underdog, and by doing what most successful underdogs do -- sitting back, playing defensively and then counterattacking at pace. APOEL didn't want to take on the likes of Zenit St Petersburg, Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto at an open, expansive game of football -- it'd get beaten. So instead, APOEL played a controlled, disciplined game. Two banks of four were stationed behind the ball, with the midfield duo barely venturing past the halfway line. Brazilian striker Ailton was left to roam the flanks and collect the ball on the break. A little like Asamoah Gyan for Ghana at the 2010 World Cup, he led the line well but was entirely unpredictable with his finishing.

[+] EnlargeGustavo Manduca
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty ImagesGustavo Manduca scored in the ninth minute against Lyon, which was enough to force the tie to penalties.

APOEL was probably helped by the fact its group-stage opponents, certainly Shakhtar and Zenit, were predominantly counterattacking sides themselves. When those sides approached games and found APOEL sitting back even deeper, it was they who had to make the running, play proactively and take the game to APOEL. They were out of their comfort zone, played poorly and APOEL managed to beat them at their own game, with coach Ivan Jovanovic getting most of the credit.

But that counterattacking approach wasn't viable in this second leg against Lyon. For the first time, APOEL had to score or it would be eliminated. Furthermore, Lyon didn't need to score, was happy to play out a 0-0 and progress. So how would a counterattacking side possibly get past an opponent who wouldn't leave any spaces at the back?

It wouldn't, and Jovanovic knew this. So rather than playing the counterattacking 4-2-3-1 system he'd previously favored, Jovanovic unleashed two strikers for the first time in the competition. Ailton dropped behind Esteban Solari, and it worked perfectly. The two had combined well in the weekend win over Ermis, the bottom club in the Cypriot first division, with Solari grabbing two goals. Another coach might have rested his best players four days ahead of the biggest game in the club's history, but the 4-1 victory on Saturday boosted APOEL's confidence. It was 4-0 after 53 minutes, and it could play the second half at walking pace.

That meant APOEL had the energy to set the tempo on Wednesday night, and it went ahead within 10 minutes. APOEL may have been playing a different system, but it was a familiar combination that got the opener. In the 2-1 victory over Porto that sealed its progression to the knockout phase, the winning goal was scored when right winger Constantinos Charalambides stormed down the flank and then rolled the ball across the penalty area for Gustavo Manduca, coming in off the opposite wing, to convert. Exactly the same thing worked here, and APOEL had its vital goal.

The remaining game was a poor event -- for the subsequent 110 minutes, APOEL was scared of conceding an away goal, and Lyon was too afraid to attack as the away side in a hostile atmosphere. It came down to penalties, and the home side progressed.

"The crowd showed us again what they are about," said goal scorer Manduca after the game. "They're just amazing, they give us so much help, we feel like we have more players on our side." And they needed it for the final few minutes, as Manduca was sent off for two bookable offenses. The second, a trip to break up a counter attack, was unfortunate. The first card, though, was for taking his shirt off while celebrating his goal -- the rule might be silly, but why do players feel the need to remove their clothing when celebrating? It could have cost Manduca's side dearly, and it'll be without him for the first leg of the quarterfinal.

Usually when underdogs find themselves at an unexpected side of a knockout competition, their players often want to draw the biggest club, to get an experience of playing against top opposition at a world-renowned stadium. But APOEL is different. "I don't want Barcelona," Manduca said. "No one wants them, or Real Madrid." He's not looking for the glamor tie, he's looking for the best chance of progression.

Whoever it faces, APOEL will be the underdog. But with its counterattacking style of play, that will suit the side just fine.

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.