Europa League: Cyprus leaders Apoel Nicosia can help remove trophy from Spain’s clutches

So used is the Europa League to residing on Spanish soil that the trophy itself may start worrying about homesickness as it scrutinises the situation ahead of the last-16 stage.

Apoel Nicosia's manager Thomas Christiansen gestures during a Europa League match against Athletic Bilbao. Vincent West / Reuters
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So used is the Europa League to residing on Spanish soil that the trophy itself may start worrying about homesickness as it scrutinises the situation ahead of the last-16 stage.

Only once in the last five years – twice in the last seven – has it not been carried home in May by a Primera Liga club. But there is work to be done if that pattern is to be maintained.

Sevilla, holders the past three years, are otherwise engaged in the Uefa Champions League.

Celta Vigo go to Ukraine tonight a goal down to Shakhtar Donetsk after the first leg of their last-32 tie while Villarreal’s condition is grave, taking a 4-0 deficit to Roma.

Hope seems to reside with Athletic Bilbao, silver medallists of the 2012 Europa League, if they can only deal with an expatriate Spanish armada in Cyprus tonight.

Athletic take a narrow lead, 3-2, to the island leg of their collision with Apoel Nicosia, and do so nervously.

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The Cypriot league leaders’s sole defeat in the last three months was in Bilbao and a raucous crowd are being urged to back another of the upset victories that made the club Europe’s most popular plucky underdogs five years ago.

Then, they beat Lyon on penalties to reach the last eight, where they notched a couple of goals at the Bernabeu before exiting at the hands of Real Madrid.

That was a historic high point for club football in Cyprus.

Back then Apoel’s common language was Portuguese, with their large Brazilian and Portuguese contingent.

These days, they lean towards Spain when they recruit from abroad. The experienced striker David Barral – once of the UAE’s Al Dhafra – joined a trio of compatriots, Urko Pardo, Roberto Lago and Inaki Astiz at Apoel in the winter transfer window, and became one of the 33 Spanish footballers now employed across the clubs of Cyprus’ top division.

Apoel’s manager is a former Spain international. Thomas Christiansen is the son of Danish father and Spanish mother and cut his teeth in coaching briefly at Al Jazira as Luis Milla’s assistant.

His formative years as a player were with Barcelona, where he showed such promise as a striker that he was capped by Spain before he had made his league debut with Barca.

Injuries inhibited his career after that, though he did go on to thrive in Germany, with Bochum, finishing as the Bundesliga’s top scorer in 2002/03.

Apoel, the 25-time domestic champions, appointed Christiansen as manager last June after he guided AEK Larnaca to successive runners-up spots in the Cypriot League. He acknowledges the league in Cyprus has its limitations but reckons, were Apoel in the Spanish Primera Liga, they would compete for a place in the top flight, or be high up in the second tier.

Their European form suggests something better.

They topped their Europa League group, thanks to two wins over Olympiakos, resonant results given the David-versus-Goliath relationship of Cypriot and Greek football.

“We played very well against Olympiakos, and won 2-0 at home. That gives us hope for the game against Athletic,” Christiansen said.

Hope grew with the last goal of a see-saw game in Spain’s Basque Country a week ago. Apoel led 1-0, but were trailing 3-1, when, with 89 minutes gone, Giannis Gianniotas registered a weighty second away goal.

“It’s a good result for us. OK, Athletic only need to draw the second leg to go through but they were always favourites.”

He hope his Impact Iberians – Barral is often used from the bench – can build on the momentum Apoel felt they gathered with the last goal in Bilbao.

He also believes that a full GSP stadium in Nicosia can intimidate any guests.

“With the help of our supporters, we have a real chance,” Christiansen said.

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