APOEL hopes for a Real miracle

Real Madrid is next in line for APOEL Nicosia, the small Cypriot club that has reached the Champions League quarterfinals for the first time in its history.

APOEL advanced by beating Lyon on penalties, and some have labeled the victory a miracle. For the quarterfinals, the team would probably need another act of intervention to knock nine-time European champion Madrid out of the competition.

The first leg will be played Tuesday in Nicosia, while Madrid hosts the second leg on April 4.

”The time has come for our team’s most historic game,” APOEL midfielder Nektarios Alexandrou said. ”We must all be absolutely prepared to give everything in this game, for us to play our best game on the pitch and for the fans in the stands.”

APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic said the challenge posed by Madrid will stretch his players’ abilities to their limit.

”In this case, surely we have to play the perfect game,” Jovanovic said ”But we don’t know if that will give us the result we want.

”We can learn a lot of things from Real.”

For some perspective on the gap between the teams, consider the numbers.

APOEL’s €10 million ($13.24 million) annual budget is one forty-fifth of Madrid’s – or about one-tenth of what the Spanish club spent to sign Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United three years ago.

By contrast, APOEL’s most expensive signing was Brazilian forward Ailton Almeida, who cost the club €1 million ($1.32 million).

On the field, Madrid has won seven of eight matches this Champions League campaign. While coach Jose Mourinho has won all four quarterfinal matches in the tournament since joining the club after leading Inter Milan to the 2010 title.

Then there is Ronaldo, who has scored 35 goals in the pre-eminent Spanish league – almost as many as the entire APOEL squad (39) in one of the weakest domestic competitions in Europe.

Madrid also received a boost on Saturday, beating Real Sociedad 5-1 after a difficult week in which its league lead over second-place Barcelona was trimmed to six points following back-to-back draws.

But no one expected APOEL to make it out of a group that also contained FC Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St. Petersburg, let alone knocking out Lyon.

”The main reason is the confidence and the willingness of my players to achieve something that no one else had done before,” said Jovanovic, whose team drew 0-0 with fierce rival Omonia last week. ”We’re a small club in Europe, but we have a big heart.”

APOEL defender Savvas Poursaitides said the players are fully aware who they’re up against, but aren’t afraid.

”We’re all waiting for this match, and I think it’s the highlight of every player’s career to play against a team like Real Madrid,” he said.

APOEL’s success has been largely due to its home form, winning five of seven matches at the 23,000-seat GSP stadium. The team has a disciplined defense that has kept it within reach of opponents and ready to exploit any defensive lapses.

”Every team in the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals has shown they can compete at the highest level,” Madrid director Emilio Butragueno said. ”We are confident the team will reach the semifinals, but our opponents have our respect because they deserve that. We will have to be very careful.

With the island gripped by Champions League fever, tickets for the match have become the hottest commodity.

Tempers flared Thursday when about 6,000 fans turned up at GSP stadium looking for tickets, only to leave empty-handed after discovering that just a few hundred were available. That mix-up forced APOEL management to apologize.

APOEL’s Brazilian midfielder, Gustavo Manduca, is suspended after scoring against Lyon and later being sent off, but Jovanovic will otherwise have a full squad to choose from.

Madrid will miss defensive midfielder Lassana Diarra because of a right hamstring strain. Also out due to injury are Angel Di Maria, Jose Callejon and Ricardo Carvalho, while midfielder Xabi Alonso is suspended.

Playmaker Mesut Oezil is set to return after being suspended for the match against Sociedad.