It’s being called the “Group of Death,” a Champions League group stage cluster comprising of Real Madrid, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia. The group includes Germany’s third-best team, England’s runners-up, Spain’s champions and Cyprus’ finest.
At a quick glance, you can foresee Madrid’s greatest foes in the stage, Tottenham and Dortmund. Both clubs encompass a youthful lineup oozing with speed and agility. They will likely give Madrid a run for their money. But what APOEL Nicosia? What do they offer to the footballing world? How will Madrid fare?
Athletikos Podosferikos Omilos Ellinon Lefkosias — APOEL FC for short — is a 90-year-old Cypriot first division footballing club located in Nicosia, Cyprus. Nicknamed “Thrylos” (The Legend), APOEL is currently the winner of 26 first division titles and 21-time holders of the Cypriot Cup.
The Cypriot club made it to the group stage by stomping through the egregious qualification rounds. APOEL FC began their Champions League campaign in the second round against F91 Dudelange, a Luxembourg club with a stadium capacity of 2,558. APOEL safely advanced 2-0 on aggregate.
The third round offered a bigger challenge. APOEL faced FC Viitorul, Romania’s top club. The first leg concluded in APOEL losing 1-0. However, they fought back in their home leg to win 4-0 and advanced 4-1 on aggregate.
Their final test before the group stage was against Slavia Prag. Prague is the recent winner of the Czech First League, and proved to be worthy opponents. Nevertheless, APOEL cruised by without conceding a goal. They won the stage 2-0 on aggregate and made it to the group stage.
Now that they made it this far, who are the main stars of the team that got them here?
APOEL FC is managed by Giorgos Donis, a former Greece international who played for the likes of Blackburn Rovers – when they were good – Sheffield United, Huddersfield Town and Panathinaikos. His managerial career has seen him work with a multitude of clubs within the Mediterranean area. He has managed clubs in Greece, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Cyprus. Donis’ trophy cabinet harbours ten trophies – not bad for someone who has been managing for 15 years.
It appears APOEL is in good hands managerial wise, but how about in terms of players?
APOEL FC contracts players from all over the globe. Their first team encompasses players from Spain, Brazil, Portugal, Australia, and Argentina to name a few. The club is captained by Nektarios Alexandrou, a 33-year-old left wingback who is closing in on his 300th appearance for the club. Their vice-captain is Nuno Morais, a 33-year-old midfielder who once had a disappointing stint with Chelsea FC. Like Alexandrou, Morais is creeping towards his 300th appearance for the club (currently at 287).
Apart from the captains, a few players to keep an eye on are Tommy Oar, Facundo Bertoglio and Georgios Efrem. Oar is a versatile winger recently purchased from Brisbane Roar. He is a capped Australian international who has spent time with FC Utrecht in the Netherland’s top flight. His small frame provides speed and agility which will help him slide by larger defenders.
Another winger Madrid needs to keep their eye on his Georgios Efrem. He is a 28-year-old winger who is an Arsenal academy product. His professional career has seen him contracted to clubs such as Rangers FC and Dundee United. Nevertheless, his time in the UK proved unfruitful. He packed his bags in 2009 and returned home to join Omonia, another first-division Cypriot team. There, he would play well over 100 games and rack up 25 goals. In 2014, he transferred to APOEl where he has gone to make nearly 80 appearances and scored 23 goals. Efrem is a Cyprus international who has made 36 international appearances and scored three goals. Like Oar, Efrem is a quick and slim winger who has strong control of his frame. Quick cuts and sharp crossing are a few of his strong suits.
Controlling the midfield will be Facundo Bertoglio, an attacking midfielder who is a bit of a journeyman. He began his career in Argentina but has since traveled to Brazil, Ukraine, France, Greece and now Cyprus. He is a smart playmaker with proper passing. He’ll most likely be the one feeding Oar and Efrem through the wide channels. He has one international cap in which he scored two goals. However, he has yet to be recalled since.
Even though the club appears to possess talent, it’s hard to compare them to Real Madrid, who are clearly the better side. APOEL’s squad will scratch and claw to level the playing field, but sadly, that obviously won’t be enough.
APOEL are the minnows of the group and will be reluctant to even pick up a point in the group stage. However, if they can bring heart, smart tactics, and discipline; they can leave the tournament with their heads held high.
To conclude, will APOEL be a challenge for Madrid? The simple answer is no. But this is football, a world where the oddest things can happen. Never write off a team early, but if you had to bet on this game, go for Real.