BY KEVIN O’NEILL
If one had been inclined to keep watch on the qualifying rounds for this season’s UEFA Europa League, there was at least one surprise, a stand-out result, to catch the eye.
It related to a second leg tie between Russia’s most decorated club, Spartak Moscow, and the Cypriot underdogs (on paper at least) from AEK Larnaca.
Only formed in 1994 from the merger of two local clubs, EPA Larnaca and Pezoporikos, AEK had booked a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds by finishing second in the previous season’s Cypriot top-flight – the club’s highest ever league finish.
And while their opening qualifying round defeat of Cliftonville (Northern Ireland) did little to raise their European profile, a few people might have been taken note when the so-called Green-Yellows drew 1-1 with Spartak in the first leg on Cypriot soil.
Yet, as Spartak had notched a valuable ‘away goal’ and had home advantage for the second leg, it would have taken a brave man to bet on anything other than a straightforward success for the Russians.
As a matter of fact, the pre-match advice handed out to punters on one online betting website confidently stated that Spartak were as good as in the next round.
‘Although Spartak were held to a 1-1 draw by AEK Larnaca in last weekâ€™s first leg tie, the Russian side should have little difficulty in winning the return game,’ the bookies predicted.
Indeed, a strong-looking Spartak could only be backed (with some bookmakers) at short odds of 1/3. For the optimistic, meanwhile, an unlikely win for Larnaca could be got at 6/1 – giving clear indication of AEK’s seemingly outside chance of going through.
But a football match has yet to be won on paper – or on a bookies’ website.
And in the testing surroundings of Spartak’s Otkrytie Arena, a dramatic last minute winner by Macedonian winger Ivan Trickovski (on loan from Legia Warsaw) caught everyone out, including the bookies, to send the Cypriots to the third and final qualifying round.
The fact that AEK’s aggregate win put them in the final qualifying round (where they lost against Slovan Liberec) was nothing new for the club, as in the 2011/12 season they became the first Cypriot team to reach the group stages of the Europa League.
Back then, the route to the group stage involved beating Floriana (Malta), Mlada Boleslav (Czech Republic) and a Rosenborg team that retain a certain level of prestige in Europe – thanks largely to former achievements – but are nowhere near the calibre they once were.
Of course, it was still a terrific achievement. But it just felt a bit different this time as beating the most decorated Russian club of all-time, especially away from home, was really something to crow about.
The main difference (compared to 2011) and a key one worth noting was the make-up of the Larnaca team on this occasion. For when they qualified for the group stages in 2011, the Larnaca team had a very Dutch/African feel.
Former Netherlands international Kevin Hofland, who played for PSV and VfL Wolfsburg, was the team captain and fellow Dutchmen, Tim de Cler and Gregor van Dijk added further experience and top level know-how.
There was a certain African influence, too, in Nigeria’s Sunny Kingsley and Alfa Yakubu, and Njongo Priso from Cameroon.
But in the last couple of years the club has gone in a different direction, choosing the ‘Spanish Way’ as the best route forward. They appointed the former Spanish underage coach Xavier Roca Mateo as Technical Director and from there, an influx of Spanish signings was probably always on the cards.
Subsequently, the club hasn’t disappointed on that front with four Spanish players (including the former Manchester City and Norwich left-back Javier Garrido) joining in the summer, to go along with six of their compatriots already in the squad.
Off the pitch, Larnaca have invested further in Spanish sophistication – since Roca Mateo’s appointment – with the Basque Imanol Idiakez taking over as first-team manager in the summer.
His predecessor had been the Danish-born but former Barcelona and Spain striker Thomas Christiansen who, in the summer, moved to the reigning Cypriot champions APOEL after two seasons in the Larnaca hot seat. Christiansen had performed some stellar work in the Larnaca dug-out, steering the side to successive second-place finishes, which was serious progress after Larnaca finished in seventh the year before his appointment.
Naturally, with such a high volume of work done at the club by Spaniards, it’s easy to imagine Larnaca trying to implement a version of the renowned tiki-taka playing style so impressively displayed by Barcelona and Spain in recent years.
But Idiakez – whose younger brother Inigo played in England for Derby County and Southampton – appears more pragmatic in his approach to getting results.
In a very direct manner, Imanol told The Football Pink: “I donÂ´t believe in tiki-taka. For me, playing football is much more than this. I can understand people talking about it but for me the ball is the tool that we use to score goals. Of course our philosophy lives around the ball because we play a positional game and one of the most important concepts is to try to keep the ball. But the most important part of our way of playing is not tiki-taka or making so many short passes, but to find the best way to score as many goals as possible.”
At the time of writing, Idiakez’s approach has been working with Larnaca showing a 100 per cent winning record from six league games.
They had finished the previous campaign in second place, behind APOEL, who themselves have won the last four league titles with a fairly cosmopolitan group of players that now includes the former Standard Liege attacker Igor de Camargo, ex-Swansea City winger Andrea Orlandi, and goalkeeper Boy Waterman, the former AZ Alkmaar and PSV net minder.
But Larnaca are determined to halt APOEL’s domestic domination and their excellent beginning to the season has put them on top of the table – where Idiakez fully intends to be at the end of the campaign.
“My ambition is always the same – to improve every day and to try to get better,” said the former midfield player who started his career with Real Sociedad but soon found himself spending the majority of his playing days in the second division with teams like Beasain, Burgos and Ciudad Murcia.
“I try to keep learning, to work and be competitive,” he continued. “But of course our dream is to win the championship for the first time in the club’s history and we will try for this with everything we have. I believe that if you work very hard on your ideals for the team that everything is possible,” Idiakez added.
Their effort to overhaul APOEL has been aided by the club’s ability to dabble well in the Spanish transfer market.
Currently included in the AEK squad, for example, is the vastly experienced Ander Murillo, who played in over 130 games for Athletic Bilbao, and the ex-Rangers winger Juanma Ortiz, who joined in 2014 after a spell with Granada.
The Spanish presence doesn’t end there with goalkeeper RubÃ©n Mino (former Mallorca and Real Oviedo), David Catala (Celta Vigo), Jorge Larena (former Atletico Madrid), Acoran Reyes (Ponferradinaete), Tete (Albacete and Murcia), Joan Tomas (Celta Vigo) and Joan Truyols (Mallorca) – and the aforementioned Javier Garrido – making up their country’s representation in Larnaca.
Yet, Larnaca is far from the only place of employment for foreign players in Cyprus.
With the domestic league really branching out in recent seasons – falling in line with most other European leagues – most top-flight squads have become largely dominated by foreign players.
As an example, the thirteen-time league winners Anorthosis Famagusta have, like Larnaca, signed numerous Spaniards, while Cillian Sheridan, the former Celtic striker, has been in Cyprus for the past three years, winning two league titles with APOEL before this year joining Omonia Nicosia.
And in the 2015/16 season, three foreign imports (Fernando Cavenaghi of APOEL, Andre Alves of AEK Larnaca and Dimitar Makriev of Nea Salamina) each scored 19 league goals to share the top-flight’s Golden Boot. The highest scoring Cypriot player in the same season was APOEL’s Giorgios Efrem, who had spells with Arsenal and Rangers in his youth, on eleven goals. Aside from Efrem, his APOEL team-mate Pieros Sotiriou was the only other Cypriot to reach double figures for goals in the season.
And in the previous campaign, the French born Benin international Mikael Pote (then Omonia Nicosia) led the scoring charts as, again, only two Cypriots managed ten or more goals for the season.
As a result, the tendency for Cypriot clubs to look abroad for talent – a development which meant that by the year 2011 over 72 per cent of players in Cyprus’ top league were foreign – has not been roundly welcomed by all Cypriot football fans, with concern raised in many quarters about the long-term impact such transfer strategies might have on the Cypriot national side, who have never reached a major tournament and has lost its opening three fixtures in the ongoing qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
There is, indeed, a lot of worry in the country’s grassroots that the burning desire of Cyprus’ top clubs to achieve both domestic and European glory is driving them to invest heavily in foreign talent at the expense of nurturing its own, local players.
And if the young and talented Cypriot players continue to see the pathway to first-team appearances blocked by foreign arrivals, what incentives do they have to remain committed to developing as young players?
Still, despite the fact that not one Cypriot born player started in Larnaca’s second leg win against Spartak Moscow, Idiakez said that the intention of the club is to work hard on developing any local talent deemed good enough to feature in the team.
“We signed not too many players this summer, deciding to keep on with most of last season’s team – but all the players that we did sign in the summer were quality players and players that can adapt to our way of playing,” he said when discussing the club’s transfer policies.
“There is a strong mentality in the club, a competitive mentality, and so the first-team squad is strong at the moment. But yes, we definitely want to develop the best young players we can because we know this is very important for the future of the club,” he added.
Indeed, a handful of players from the Larnaca club are currently involved with the Cypriot senior squad, including 23-year-old Nikos Englezou, whose talent as a youngster took him to Greece and AEK Athens, where he couldn’t quite make the breakthrough before returning to his homeland.
Apart from Englezou though (who one imagines has at least ten more years to play), all of the other Larnaca players in the national squad are, worryingly, over the age 32 – including national team captain Constantinos Charalambides, a 35-year-old who joined in the summer after eight successful years with APOEL.
Perhaps of some concern too, would be the fact that Larnaca, as a club, presently have scant representation in either the country’s Under-21 or Under-19 set-ups. But for now, it seems, the sole focus of Larnaca is fixed on overtaking APOEL at the summit of Cypriot football, a target that could well be reached this season.
What the long-term repercussions of AEK’s, and pretty much every other Cypriot top-flight side’s over-reliance on foreign talent will be, very much remains to be seen.
And while there is definitely some cause for concern for the prospects of local players, it would also be completely negligent to suggest anything other than the clear-cut fact that, in the last few years, local football supporters have enjoyed a far better and more competitive domestic league than in previous decades.
And to hammer home the point, those in favour of Cypriot teams continuing to cast the net far and wide to find the best possible players to enhance the quality of the league will, quite fairly, point to the remarkable journey of Anorthosis Famagusta in the 2008/09 UEFA Champions League when the team – managed by Newcastle United cult hero Temuri Ketsbaia – reached the group stages and went mightily close to securing a place in the last 16 knockout stage.
Would such an achievement have been possible without the heavy investment by Anorthosis in about 15 foreign players? Not very likely, one suggests, given that no Cypriot team had previously reached the group stages.
In reality, the nay-sayers will always be lurking in the long grass – it’s basically the same in every country and in every club. And there remains very few clubs, if any at all, who can get absolutely everything right in the eyes of supporters and critics. It is an extremely difficult thing to achieve as there simply is no magic philosophy in the game to please the want of everyone.
So for the moment, what is happening in Larnaca contains a certain amount of excitement and intrigue, as a merry band of men from Spain, led by their countryman Idiakez, endeavour to break APOEL’s recent stranglehold on the league.
And could you envisage the locals dwelling much on the club’s transfer policy if the coveted league crown ends up in Larnaca for the first time ever when the season concludes?
I, for one, doubt it very much.