Apoel put Cyprus in big league
The outstanding achievement of the Champions League group stages had to be that of Cypriot champions Apoel Nicosia who topped Group G ahead of Zenit St Petersburg, qualified with a round to spare and eliminated the powerful duo of Porto and Shaktar Donetsk.
To win a group containing three of the last four Europa League champions is an achievement in itself but to do it on a budget of around €10m, about half of Samuel Eto'o's wages at Anzhi Makhachkala, is phenomenal. The team which clinched qualification by drawing away to Zenit contained four Portuguese, three Brazilians, three Cypriots and players from Macedonia, Bosnia, Paraguay and Belgium.
Manager Ivan Jovanovic arrived after lasting less than a year at Iraklis Thessaloniki in Greece. When he got the gig at Apoel three seasons back, he was the club's 17th manager in 10 years. Back in 1978, Apoel were beaten both home and away by Shamrock Rovers in the Cup Winners' Cup. The same year Bohemians defeated Omonia Nicosia in the European Cup. There was nothing surprising about those results. The Cypriot League was dire. From 1963 to 1993, Apoel played 20 European ties and won two of them.
These days it's different. Because another heartening aspect of Apoel's success is that they are not an all-conquering team in domestic soccer the way Rosenborg used to be in Norway. They've picked up three of the last six titles in Cyprus but Omonia, Apollon and Anorthosis Famagusta have also lifted the crown. Anorthosis made the Champions League group stages in 2009 while AEK Larnaca can still make the knockout stages of this year's Europa League. Cyprus now has the 16th-ranked league in Europe, ahead of the Scottish, Czech, Croatian and Polish leagues, and 17 places clear of the League of Ireland. A country of about a million people has worked a footballing miracle.
Shamrock Rovers' feat of reaching the Europa League knockout stages and compiling the worst record there doesn't seem quite so impressive now, does it?
Sunday Indo Sport