AEK Arena | “People just tell me ‘that’s Cyprus'”

AEK Larnaca 2-1 Apollon Limassol

📍 AEK Arena | Larnaca, CY
🏆 Cyta Protathlima
⚽ Cyprus (Tier 1)
📅 Sat 8 Jan 22 | 7.00pm
🎟️ €15 | Att: ?

Following an unplanned hiatus from live football (i.e. the blanket restriction of attendees at domestic Welsh matches, and the winter break in Cyprus), it’s been around a month since I last set foot inside an actual stadium.

That doesn’t quite match the absence that was imposed on us in 2020 and the first half of 2021, of course, but it still feels like a small lifetime, which is why I couldn’t refuse the offer of an Apollon Limassol away day to AEK Arena this weekend.

The AEK Arena: Sleek and Stylish

I’ve visited this small but modern and well-presented ground on several occasions, most prominently for Apollon’s Europa League qualifiers; with its 4-star UEFA rating, it is the only stadium in Cyprus – alongside the GSP in Nicosia – that is eligible to host international and continental matches (at least until the new Limassol Arena is opened for business next season).

Having last visited in 2018, though, today’s clash with Apollon – a top-of-the-table six-pointer, no less – seems like the perfect opportunity to “check in”.

AEK Arena in Larnaca.

Opened in 2016, the ground itself ticks a lot of desirable boxes; it’s certainly easy to reach by car and has ample parking – which is often a deal-breaker in Cyprus. It’s also purpose-built for its primary tenants (second tier ASIL have also played here in recent seasons), giving it a unique identity that can often be lacking in new builds. I’m reliably informed by my acquaintance that it offers the best stadium sandwich on the island, too, although I don’t partake on this occasion.

High Stakes

Those tenants are, of course, AEK, a club that was founded in 1994 as a merger between two of the city’s most historic clubs: EPA Larnaca and Pezoporikos. During this period, the Kitrinoprasinoi have won two domestic cups and played in the Europa League group stages, and have established themselves as a serious force in Cypriot football in recent years.

Apollon, meanwhile, have progressed steadily since I last reported on them in September, with German coach Alexander Zorniger building both a cult of personality and a high-pressing, all-action side.

Much of this buzz is built around the concept of the “crazy German”, a persona that the former Eintracht Frankfurt coach is seemingly happy to promote. His press conferences often contain bizarre metaphors, blunt truths, and passionate pleas to supporters, but there is clearly a long-term strategy in place at the club, and an attempt to implement a very high-risk, high-reward way of playing.

AEK on a Roll

Due to a combination of COVID and injuries, the away side are forced to rejig this evening; second choice left-back Haitam Aleesami is pushed into central midfield, while young Georgian winger Revaz Injgia supports a clearly half-fit Rangelo Janga up top.

Despite this, they put in a spirited first-half performance in front of the capacity away end, although the game itself is settled in 11 crazy second-half minutes. Apollon academy graduate Danilo Spoljaric equalises in the 51st minute following Jose Romo’s awkward 49th minute opener, only to then balloon the ball into his own net on the hour, capping a rollercoaster evening for the promising young midfielder.

On balance, it’s a cruel blow; over the course of 90 minutes, there is very little between the two sides in what is ultimately a gritty, hot-tempered, stop-start grind.

It also means that, as the midway point of the season nears, a bankrolled Aris now surprisingly sit atop the table. With APOEL and reigning champions Omonoia Nicosia likely to be resurgent in the second half of the season, the domestic league is shaping up for a dramatic conclusion.

Apollon host Omonoia next weekend, while AEK travel to Nicosia to take on PAEEK.

Postscript: It was a successful season for both these clubs, with Apollon going on to win the title and AEK pipping APOEL to secure to the runners-up spot – and a first ever appearance in the Champions League.