NICOSIA – Apollon Limassol and APOEL will both head into their Europa League playoff second legs next in confident mood after gaining the upper hand in their first leg ties on Thursday night.
The biggest eye catcher came from Nicosia where Cup holders Apollon Limassol recorded an impressive 2-0 victory over French club Nice while APOEL – who had dropped into the competition after suffering elimination by Maribor in the Champions League – struck late to salvage a 1-1 draw against Zulte Waregem in Brussels.
Christakis Christoforou’s Apollon had been deemed the team most unlikely to reach the group stages in the summer but the Limassol club is now firmly in the driving seat following a spectacular second half double from star attacker Gaston Sangoy.
His first goal came from a direct free-kick on 54 minutes that was bundled into his own net by Colombian keeper David Ospina while his second came ten minutes later when he did well to turn in Roberto’s clever cross. Christoforou’s side could have put the tie to bed as Roberto, Marcos Gullon and Charalambos Kyriakou all spurned chances late on while at the other end, Nice had gone close through Jeremy Pied while star striker Dario Cvitanich – who was a late substitute – cut a frustrated figure after having a penalty appeal turned down moments before his goal was ruled as offside.
Paulo Sergio’s APOEL will also have the advantage after battling to a 1-1 draw against Zulte in Belgium.
The Cypriot title holders had spurned many chances through Cillian Sheridan, Constantinos Charalambides and Marcelo Oliveira before 18-year-old Junior Malanda struck at the other end following a defence-splitting pass from Thorgan Hazard.
Sheridan again went close after the interval but his shot from close range came crashing off the post before Vinicius also continued to fire blanks.
Zulte missed a glorious chance to put the tie almost out of APOEL’s reach on 87 minutes when Urko Pardo parried Jens Naessens’ shot into the path of Aleksandar Trajkovski but the FYROM forward’s shot came off the post.
The miss proved to be a costly one as barely a minute later, Pardo’s long ball evaded the Belgian defence and found substitute Nektarios Alexandrou who executed goalkeeper Sammy Bossut with a delicate lob.
The return leg will take place at the GSP Stadium on Thursday on the same night that Apollon defend their 2-0 lead in Nice.
Cyprus’ only teams to have qualified for the Europa League group stage are AEL and AEK. APOEL have featured twice in the Champions League group stages going as far as the quarterfinals two seasons ago while Apollon have never reached the group stages of a UEFA competition.
Anorthosis and Omonia both exited the Europa League early on in the summer after defeats in the second qualifying round at the hands of Gefle and Astra Giurgiu.