Madrid must respect 'dream' Apoel run

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The warning to Real Madrid is simple – write off Apoel Nicosia at your peril.

When the Champions League qualifying process began last summer, few would have predicted that the Cypriot champions would make into the last eight of Europe’s premier club competition.

But, against the odds, Ivan Jovanovic’s side has progressed to the quarter-finals of the competition with a style that makes them very dangerous to Jose Mourinho’s men.

Whilst the romantics have already penciled in a Madrid v Barcelona final at the Allianz Arena in May, Apoel might just have different ideas after fighting so hard to reach this stage.

Albanian Superliga winners Skenderbeu were seen off in the second qualifying round, before victory over Slovan Bratislava in the next stage. A first-leg play-off defeat against Wisla Krakow followed, but the subsequent home comeback in the return fixture was a sign of things to come.

Indeed, the GSP Stadium is something of a fortress for the club whose record signing cost just £850,000. Two home wins, and importantly three away draws, proved the difference in a group containing FC Porto, Zenit St. Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk.

Not the toughest Group G in living memory, it must be said, but many teams have struggled on their travels in Russia and Ukraine respectively. The Estadio Dragao can also be a tough place to get anything.

A closer look at the results give a clear indication of how Apoel play, scoring six goals and conceding the same number. They keep things very tight at the back, and then look to score on the counter.

It was a philosophy that served the side well against Lyon, a major step-up in class, in the first knockout round of this competition too.

After soaking up pressure at the Stade de Gerland, Apoel left with just a one-goal deficit, and got that back in the first ten minutes of the second-leg. And, after a backs-to-the-wall performance, a penalty shoot-out proved the difference between the two sides.

"It is an amazing season, the best in our history. It's the season that we have been dreaming about all our lives. It's an extraordinary feeling, completely unique. I hope it will not end,” fan Constantinos Constantinou told BBC Sport.

"I've followed Apoel for 25 years and we've had some very bad, embarrassing moments in our history. Now the last three years everything has changed."

Whether things have changed enough to cause an upset against Real Madrid is up for debate, and in the grand scheme of things unlikely. But, it’s not impossible, especially with the first leg at home for the pride of Cyprus.

The key will be how Jovanovic’s defence holds up against superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gonzalo Higuain and Karim Benzema. These are the calibre of player that Apoel have never faced in the past – their biggest test to date no doubt.

"Real Madrid should expect to have a very difficult night in Nicosia. We are not afraid of them. The bookmakers are giving us only a 5% chance of winning. That is enough for us. I can live with that,” Constantinou concluded when speaking to the BBC.

"In Nicosia they will not beat us.”

This confidence is quite stunning when you think that one of world football’s greatest sides will be coming to town tomorrow night. Without this self-believe though, you’d think they have no chance.

And one thing is for certain – Apoel will be well prepared. Manager Jovanovic is a keen student of the game, and thoroughly prepares for every possible eventuality in matches

"A lot of this season's success can be put down to very good tactical organisation, hard work on the training ground and belief. Look at the penalty shootout in the game against Lyon - the goalkeeper before the game had prepared for every single penalty taker and he dived correctly four out of five times,” journalist Nassos Stylianou told the BBC.

"They can also be extremely good going forward. In the five games that they needed to qualify from the group stages, they had the fewest shots per the number of goals scored.”

That’s a stat that Apoel will need to continue against Los Blancos, because chances are likely to be at a premium for the tournament’s 250/1 rank outsiders.

Whilst their results in the competition thus far have been nothing short of miraculous, a positive outcome against Madrid on Tuesday will fire this team into another stratosphere.

As Apoel have already shown this season, expect the unexpected.

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