NICOSIA, Cyrpus, March 8 – APOEL became the first Cypriot side to reach the Champions League quarter-finals Wednesday when they beat Lyon 4-3 on penalties after their last 16 tie was level 1-1 on aggregate following extra time.
Goalkeeper Dionisis Chiotis was the hero of the night after saving penalties from Alexandre Lacazette and Michel Bastos.
“Without doubt, this is a very big night for APOEL and Cypriot football, it’s something fantastic,” said APOEL’s Serb coach Ivan Jovanovic, whose team had triumphed 1-0 on the night after losing by the same score in France.
He added that when starting out in the competition last summer “we didn’t dream of coming this far” and attributed the victory to “incredible effort, decisiveness and organisation” while the team “played a “perfect game”.
Lyon coach Remi Garde said there were “no excuses” but avoided criticising his penalty flops.
“We win as a team and lose as a team,” he told reporters. “This is a big disappointment, we didn’t have control of the game, we had some good chances but that’s how it goes.”
A nail-biting 30 minutes of extra time saw APOEL reduced to 10 men and substitute Ivan Trickovski shooting high and wide from the edge of area on 114 minutes.
Trailing 1-0 from the first leg, unfancied APOEL got off to a perfect start when Brazilian midfielder Gustavo Manduca slotted home from close range after only nine minutes.
But Manduca’s night ended in red when receiving his second yellow deep in extra time although he was still given a standing ovation.
The 23,000 sold out GSP stadium was a wall of deafening sound and a sea of orange as APOEL’s fanatical fans spurred the team on during the biggest game in the club’s 85-year history.
A large banner in the home stand read: “Feel the terror of Nicosia” as APOEL’s vociferous support ensured a hostile atmosphere for the French visitors.
Ever since the draw for the last 16 was made, APOEL were hopeful the tie would be decided at home and the fixture was set up perfectly with the Cypriots only trailing 1-0 from the first leg from a Lacazette strike.
Lyon began the match nervously but edged back into the game after going behind so early.
They knew an away goal would get them out of jail and Bastos should have done better than send his header over the bar from six yards on the half hour.
Then Ederson came close with a glancing header from the same range but his effort went agonisingly wide of the far post.
Ederson also saw his free kick curling into the top corner pawed away by Chiotis.
The home side always looked dangerous on the break while playing a patient passing game hoping for cracks to appear in the Lyon defence.
Star striker Ailton was a constant threat winning fouls in the opposition half and proving a wily customer while Helder Sousa was tireless in midfield.
APOEL came out for the second half confident they could achieve another unlikely giant killing act.
And lady luck nearly smiled on the Nicosia club when a Helder Sousa free kick wide on the left was headed on to his own bar by Aly Cissokho.
Argentine forward Estaban Solari almost turned in a Constantinos Charalambides’ driven cross from three yards only to see it flash across the goal on 71 minutes.
And two minutes later an unmarked Lisandro should have put the tie beyond doubt with a header that Chiotis tipped round the post for a corner.
With victory, APOEL continue their magical adventure after punching above their weight against more illustrious sides such as Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and now Lyon.
In terms of budget and status, APOEL are the smallest club left in the competition.
APOEL are the most decorated team in Cypriot football. A founder member of the Cyprus Football Association, they were formed in a sweet shop 85 years ago.