NICOSIA, Oct 1 – Chelsea came through a tricky Champions League tie in Cyprus on Wednesday against Cypriot underdogs APOEL Nicosia with a scrappy 1-0 victory to stay top of Group D.After a hesitant start in the opening minutes Chelsea quickly found their stride with the intelligent running of Nicolas Anelka on the left and Frank Lampard probing through the middle of the park.
The home side seemed unfazed by the occasion – billed as the biggest game in the club’s 83-year history – but APOEL had little answer to combat Chelsea’s wing play.
And the Cypriots were undone by a weaving run from right-back Branislav Ivanovic, who broke into the box to set up Anelka to curl the shot calmly past keeper Dionisios Chiotis after 18 minutes.
The Frenchman was a constant menace, first on the left, then switching intermittently to the right as he seemed to find space easily behind the defence.
Before Anelka’s strike, Salomon Kalou had a chance to score but put his shot wide of the target and Ashely Cole could have made it 2-0 after only 20 minutes gone but his header wide from six yards.
Despite Chelsea pressure the goal was the only shot on target with Chiotis not really called on to repeat the heroics of his clean sheet in Madrid.
His opposite number down the other end also had a quiet first 45 minutes with Petr Cech only called in to service to punch away a Constantinos Charalambides free kick. And the Cyprus international should have done better when he skewed a volley horribly wide when he had a sight on goal.
The Premier League title contenders came out after the interval eager to clinch a second goal that would inevitably kill the game off as a contest. But the extra goal never came while Chelsea were put on the back foot in the second half with some desperate defending thrown in.
And while the visitors failed to create chances, APOEL grew more confident, taking the fight to Chelsea.
They came close to a shock equaliser when a mix up in the defence gave Savvas Poursatides a scoring opportunity but Cech smartly saved with his legs.
Charalambides nearly had the last word in this tie, but his close range header from an angle went the wrong side of the bar five minutes from the end.
As the contest entered the final third, the London club seemed to lose shape and rhythm as passes went astray. Chelsea looked rather ordinary at that stage while the Cypriots played the better football that made a mockery of their minnow status.
This was not Chelsea’s best performance in Europe but manager Carlo Ancelotti demanded three points and his players delivered.
"APOEL played very well in the second half and deserved to draw, but this is football," said the Italian afterwards with one eye on a crucial game with Liverpool on Sunday.
"I am not satisfied because we have to play better with more control and courage. We will not play like today (against Liverpool), we will play better for sure."
Ancelotti did single out Anelka for his match winning contribution.
APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic said the defeat had left a "bitter taste" because his team had come close to getting a result.
"We are a little disappointed because in the second half we made an exceptional effort. We lack Champions League experience and Chelsea are one of the best in Europe."
APOEL are only the second Cypriot team to reach the group stage of Europe’s premier club competition – after Anorthosis made it last season – and earned a credible 0-0 opening-day draw away to Atletico Madrid.
Chelsea wanted to cement their place at the top of the table with a second victory in as many games.
No Cypriot team has ever beaten an English side in European competition.
Yet this rarely seemed like a David v Goliath contest with Chelsea’s wealth of talent failing to overpower their hosts.
APOEL were buoyed by their vociferous ‘orange’ supporters, who created an intimidating atmosphere at Nicosia’s GSP stadium.