Apoel suffered a 2-1 defeat away to Astana on Thursday, but the night ended in celebration for the Cypriots as Olympiacos’ 1-1 draw against Young Boys in the group’s other game means they are through to the knockout stages of the Europa League for the first time in their history.
Astana had to come from behind to defeat ten-man Apoel, but the Nicosia club quickly got over the loss after Olympiacos stopped Young Boys from winning, meaning they cannot be caught by the third or fourth-placed sides with one more game still to play.
The game in the Kazakhstan capital was in doubt earlier in the week with temperatures reaching -30 degrees Celsius, but the eventually rose to a modest -8 ahead of kick-off.
The home side got an early foothold on the game and the first good effort on goal came on 25 minutes when Apoel defender Astiz cleared the ball into the path of Astana full-back Shomko who hit a rasping effort with his left-foot which whistled past the post with Waterman helpless.
But just as they did in three of their previous four Europa League group games this season, it was Apoel who took the lead. A long ball out of defence was flicked on by Aloneftis and Efrem, without taking a first touch, hit the bouncing ball with the outside of his left boot which flew into the top corner, for one of the goals of the competition so far.
The joy was short lived however, as Apoel were quickly reduced to ten men. A poor touch from Astiz, allowed Kabananga to intercept and the Spaniard made the hasty decision of bringing him down, leaving the referee no other option but to send him off as he was the last man.
Despite being a player down, Apoel started the second half on the front foot, with De Camargo having an effort on goal before Efrem nearly picked out Sotiriou for what would have been a close-range tap-in
Astana nearly equalised on 57 minutes when Apoel’s Lago slipped in his attempt to clear, presenting Despotovic with a fine chance, but Waterman spread himself well to deny the striker from six yards.
On the hour mark however, the hosts were level. What should have been a routine collection of a harmless corner by Waterman, the Dutchman let the ball slip out of his hands allowing Anicic to equalise from close range.
From then on, it was backs to the wall stuff for the Cypriot side, as Astana piled on the pressure. On 64 minutes, after a free-flowing move, Beysebekov lashed into the side netting.
Astana’s momentum continued to grow, with Kabananga going close minutes later. The Congolese striker again threatened with a sharp volley on the turn with ten minutes remaining, though Waterman appeared to have it covered.
Apoel’s resolve was finally broken on 84 minutes when Shomko’s cross found Despotovic, who edged ahead of Carlao, then hit the post with his first attempt but made no mistake from the rebound.
The defeat was quickly forgotten however, thanks to Olympiacos preventing Young Boys from winning in Piraeus and the fact that the Greeks drew rather than won means Apoel can finish group winners with just a draw when the pair meet in the final group game on 8 December in Nicosia.
Results from Thursdays other Europa League matches:
Fenerbahce 2 – Zorya Luhansk 0
Fiorentina 2 – Paok Salonika 3
Slovan Liberec 3 – FK Qarabag 0
Hapoel Be’er Sheva 3 – Inter Milan 2
Sparta Prague 1 – Southampton 0
FC Zurich 1 – Villarreal 1
Steaua Bucharest 2 – Osmanlispor 1
Olympiacos 1 – Young Boys 1
FK Qabala 1 – Anderlecht 3
Saint-Etienne 0 – Mainz 05 0
Zenit 2 – Maccabi Tel Aviv 0
Dundalk 0 – AZ Alkmaar 1
Austria Vienna 1 – Astra Giurgiu 2
Roma 4 – Viktoria Plzen 1
Athletic Bilbao 3 – Sassuolo 2
KRC Genk 1 – Rapid Vienna 0
Ajax 2 – Panathinaikos 0
Celta Vigo 1 – Standard Liege 1
KAA Gent 2 – Sporting Braga 2
Shakhtar Donetsk 4 – Konyaspor 0
Schalke 2 – Nice 0
FK Krasnodar 1 – Red Bull Salzburg 1