Coming into this season, Real Madrid were considered one of the top favorites to lift the UEFA Champions League trophy, and over the last several months, they’ve done nothing to change that status.
Most are expecting a meeting against Bayern Munich in the semifinals and a showdown against archrivals Barcelona in May’s final at Bayern’s Allianz Arena, but before they can start looking ahead, Jose Mourinho’s side must see off the surprise package of this year’s tournament, APOEL Nicosia.
This is a David v. Goliath meeting if there was one, it goes without saying. Real have won the European Cup/Champions League a record nine times, and the value of their star-studded squad is higher than the GDP of a few small nations. This is Real’s 29th quarterfinal in Europe’s premier club competition, and they’re 22 for 28 in their previous appearances.
At the other end of the spectrum, even reaching the knockout stages was uncharted territory for APOEL and for Cypriot football in general. Real Madrid’s squad is filled with household names, while it’s likely that most of the households that can immediately name more than one or two of APOEL’s players are in Cyprus.
For APOEL to win would be one of the all-time great European shocks, if not the greatest, and it’s a task that would appear to be beyond them. But given all that they’ve shown to this point, rest assured that they won’t go down without a fight. Few would have expected them to even finish third in a group that included FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Zenit St. Petersburg, but lo and behold, they would score home wins over Zenit and Porto and go unbeaten in their first five group matches on the way not only to qualifying for the last 16, but to winning the group to boot.
In the round of 16, they went up against Lyon, who are no stranger to the Champions League knockout stages. APOEL lost only 1-0 in the first leg in France, and in the second leg, an early goal by Brazilian forward Gustavo Manduca and some staunch defending gave APOEL the 1-0 victory that was required to force extra time. APOEL successfully navigated extra time, surviving a late red card to Manduca to take the match to a decisive penalty shootout. APOEL’s takers held their nerve, converting all four of their tries from the spot, and after letting Lyon’s first three kicks go by, keeper Dionisis Chiotis ensured his place in the annals of APOEL history by saving Lyon’s last two attempts and sending the little Cypriot side that could into the Champions League quarters.
APOEL have played confidently but smartly to this point, limiting mistakes and holding their composure where most would’ve expected them not to. But it will take an effort far beyond the great effort they’ve shown thus far for them to have a chance to take down mighty Madrid, who warmed up for tonight’s first leg in Cyprus with a 5-1 win over Real Sociedad on Saturday. Real have been scoring goals for fun, having already topped the century mark in all competitions for the season, led by Cristiano Ronaldo, who’s on the verge of a second straight campaign with 50+ goals. But they’re far from a one-man team, as Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain have both surpassed the 20-goal mark and could hit 30 before the season‘s done.
One also can’t overlook Jose Mourinho’s record at this stage. Mourinho has led a side to the Champions League quarters five times, and he’s come out on top in each one, once with FC Porto (2004), twice with Chelsea (2005 & 2007), once with Inter (2010), and last season with Real, whose run was ended by Barca in a hot-tempered semifinal.
APOEL have had an amazing run, and there’s a real chance they could give Real some trouble tonight, but ultimately, their resistance will be broken over the two legs, as Real are a team on a mission and won’t be denied. There’s always the potential that Goliath can underestimate and overlook David, but Mourinho won’t allow his side to lose focus, even against a markedly inferior opponent, when so much is at stake.
Football betting made smarter, courtesy of HotVig.com.
Our Champions League App review.
The Cristiano Ronaldo signed jersey contest courtesy of ICONS.
Benfica v Chelsea Preview – do Chelsea have another magnificent performance left in the tank?