APOEL in dreamland after defeating Lyon
A 4-3 win on penalties over Olympique Lyon after a deserved 1-0 home victory in their last-16 second leg followed the shock achievement of finishing top of their qualifying group in Europe's elite club competition.
Tiny Cyprus, a minnow in European football terms, burst into celebrations as thousands of APOEL supporters poured into the streets of Nicosia after the nail-biting ending.
"This is a fantastic result. The team deserved this. We got to where we wanted, with the eight best teams in Europe. Now we feel we can move forward, and deal with any team that comes," APOEL chairman Phivos Erotocritou told reporters.
Lyon's Alexandre Lacazette and Michel Bastos had their spot-kicks confidently saved by Dionisios Chiotis, who was also unlucky that Lisandro Lopez's penalty went in off his back.
APOEL scored all four of their spot-kicks with aplomb to send their team mates and fervent fans into delirium in the tight GSP Stadium, with Chiotis mobbed on the pitch.
Gustavo Manduca, sent off in extra-time for a second booking, had earlier netted at the far post on nine minutes after Constantinos Charalambides had slid in a cross as APOEL levelled the aggregate scores after losing the first leg 1-0.
"We knew we would have to try very hard, that it was not going to be an easy game, but the players put in an excellent performance," said APOEL coach Ivan Jovanovic.
"I think the players were very focused and at the end we were vindicated by our qualification. Just saying it, believe me, it's something fantastic."
Lyon, who came into the game on the back of poor domestic form, fielded a defensive lineup with first-leg scorer Lacazette and top scorer Bafetimbi Gomis starting on the bench.
Manduca's goal forced under pressure Lyon coach Remi Garde to urge his side forward and Ederson's overhit free-kick almost sneaked in before his diving header bounced wide but that was as close as the French side came.
"It's an immense disappointment," Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas said after his side bowed out at the last-16 stage for the fifth time in six seasons.
"That first goal put us in a difficult situation. Playing for qualification here is like playing with fire. I tip my hat to APOEL."
Lyon won seven French titles in a row in the last decade but now lie seventh in Ligue 1 and are all but out of contention for a Champions League place next term.
Rookie coach Garde's future is now up in the air despite reaching a French League Cup final next month.
APOEL, who finished ahead of seasoned campaigners Zenit St Petersburg, Porto and Shakhtar Donetsk in their Champions League group but lie third domestically, had set up with a more attacking side than usual.
They gradually began to sit back after the early advantage with the dogged defence that has shone this term again on show.
The home side still had other chances with Charalambides blasting wide from a difficult angle, Esteban Solari's shot being saved by Hugo Lloris and Lyon's Aly Cissokho flicking a free-kick onto his own bar.
A previously lacklustre Lyon shaded extra-time with Gomis and Lacazette on the field but APOEL also got forward and wasted decent opportunities.
The build-up to the match was far from smooth with vandals trying to dig up the pitch on Tuesday, the officials having a flat tyre en route to the game and rain welcoming the players before kick -ff on the often sun-baked island.
An electric atmosphere inside the arena made up for the hiccups, however, with the second highest APOEL crowd ever of nearly 23,000 packing the stands and hailing the monumental achievement of a team of journeymen from around the world.
"I can't describe the tension. We couldn't have hoped for a better result," APOEL fan Christopher Constantinou, 20, told Reuters as he looked ahead to the last-eight draw on March 16.
"Pinch me, I haven't realised yet that APOEL wrote history tonight."