x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Apoel Nicosia dream of Champions League upset against Lyon

The Cypriots have promised to give it their all against Lyon, while Bayer Leverkusen acknowledge size of task facing them in Barcelona.

The Apoel Nicosia team training yesterday ahead of tonight’s last-16 second-leg Champions League tie with Lyon.
The Apoel Nicosia team training yesterday ahead of tonight’s last-16 second-leg Champions League tie with Lyon.

NICOSIA, Cyprus // Apoel Nicosia will again try to defy expectations and overturn a 1-0 deficit against Lyon in the second leg of their Champions League matchup tonight to continue their historic Champions League run.

Apoel have already become the first Cypriot team to reach the last 16 of the tournament and will rely on their home advantage to go even further. The team have only lost once in 10 European matches at Nicosia's GSP stadium, and earned group-stage wins over Shakhtar Donetsk and Porto there.

"90 minutes away from eternity," Cypriot sports daily Goal News said on its front page yesterday.

The club are still considered the underdogs against the French side, who are playing in the last 16 for the ninth successive season.

But Apoel's players know an upset will make history for the club and earn them a career highlight.

"Everybody's expecting this moment, the most important in the life of this club and a very important day for us as players, as a team," Apoel's Brazilian midfielder Gustavo Manduca said. "We must score, we must win. We'll take the risk and we try to do our best to continue in this fantastic competition."

A 4-1 win over lowly Ermis over the weekend kept Apoel close to the Cypriot league leaders AEL and Omonia. It also helped quell fan ire over a string of poor performances - including being eliminated from the League Cup - that some viewed as a consequence of the team focusing on the Champions League.

While the Portuguese midfielder Helio Pinto is suspended, Ivan Jovanovic, the Apoel coach has the rest of his squad at his disposal.

Lyon have lost three and drawn two in their last five league matches. Their 2-0 loss to relegation-threatened Nancy on Saturday dropped the team to seventh place in the standings and drew an angry response from Jean-Michel Aulas, the club president.

"They're nice guys, but that's not enough. They shouldn't pass up the opportunities that they have," Aulas said. "They're talented, they have money, glory and looks, but they have to increase their commitment. What's missing is for them to be at their best more often, and on the same day."

But Apoel's push to score could create openings that Lyon's speedy forwards can exploit. "The second leg in Nicosia will be very tough," Aly Cissokho, the Lyon left-back, said. "But they will have to attack so that should give a quite open match."

Bayer Leverkusen face the formidable task of becoming the first club in nearly three decades to overturn a two-goal deficit at Barcelona if they are to reach the Champions League quarter-finals.

Barcelona, who lead the Germans 3-1 from the first leg, go into tonight’s game with a number of injury concerns but are comfortably on course to reach the last eight for the fifth successive season as they look to retain their crown.

The European champions have progressed 31 of 33 times when opening a two-leg series with a victory away from home, and not since a 4-1 loss to Metz in 1984 have the Catalan club failed to close out a two-goal lead at Camp Nou.

Leverkusen have won a season-best three consecutive league matches, including a 2-0 win over Bayern Munich, since losing to Barcelona. But they have not won away from home in Europe in nearly a decade.

Liverpool beat Barcelona 2-1 at Camp Nou at this stage in 2007 after the English club lost 1-0 at Anfield, but the Spanish champions have won all three last-16 matches under Pep Guardiola, beating Bayern, Stuttgart and Arsenal by a combined 11-1.

Barcelona are unbeaten in 13 European home games with 11 victories and have won nine successive games over German sides, outscoring their opponents by 24 goals to four on that run.

“Realistically, we don’t stand much of a chance. But we want to give Barcelona a game,” the striker Stefan Kiessling said.

As expected, Guardiola was preaching prudence to his team, the coach saying: “Some may take Leverkusen for granted and underestimate them, but we still have a lot of work to do to get ready for a team with a lot of height that with a corner kick can break open the knockout series.”