Champions League Group G wrap: Apoel through, Porto alive
Apoel Nicosia became the first Cypriot club to qualify for the Champions League knockout stages after a 0-0 draw at Zenit St Petersburg.
Russian Premier League champions Zenit proved unable to break down their stubborn visitors at the Petrovski Stadium, leaving Apoel as surprise leaders in Group G.
Elsewhere on Wednesday, Porto defeated Shakhtar Donetsk 2-0 away from home.
They sit third on seven points, one point behind second-placed Zenit.
With Porto and Zenit set to meet on the final matchday, Apoel are guaranteed a place in the round of 16, regardless of the outcome of their home meeting with Shakhtar.
It would take a harsh judge to say Ivan Jovanovic’s team do not deserve their place in the knockouts, after surviving a barrage of Zenit pressure in a hostile atmosphere.
The hosts created countless chances through Danny and Alexander Bukharov, but Apoel held firm to remain unbeaten in the group stage.
It was Zenit who began the match with intent, and the first opportunity of the contest fell to striker Bukharov, who could not keep his early header on target.
On 25 minutes, Bukharov was played in down the right channel, but he delayed his delivery.
When the scrambled cutback eventually found Roman Shirokov, the midfielder’s effort was blocked on the line.
Luciano Spalletti’s home side remained in charge, but could not convert their tidy football and attacking threat into goals.
A misdirected Bukharov header proved to be the last action of the first half, and the players left the field shrouded in a cloud of smoke from the several flares being unleashed in the stands.
At the start of the second half, a second flare produced a fog that enveloped the pitch, and referee Felix Brych took the decision to suspend the match, ushering both teams back down the tunnel.
After a further 10-minute delay, play resumed, and it was Bukharov who came closest to breaking the deadlock.
He met a cross from the right with a thumping header that crashed back from the crossbar.
Apoel goalkeeper Ukra Pardo lay prostrate in his goalmouth after colliding with the upright, but Bukharov contrived to volley wide of the empty target from the rebound.
Zenit continued to push, and Bukharov came within inches of scoring once again, but his toe-poked effort was hooked from under the bar by Nuno Morais.
Moments later, Danny’s measured shot was palmed over by Pardo.
The away side were now desperately clinging on to the draw they needed to progress.
Somehow, they managed to see off the Zenit onslaught, and the final whistle led to scenes of wild celebration from the Apoel players and staff.
The stalemate leaves Zenit second and they can still win the group with victory away to Porto, combined with an Apoel defeat on the final matchday.
Conversely, defeat in Portugal on December 6 will see Spalletti’s side slip into the Europa League.
In the other match in the group, Porto kept their own chances of progression alive with a 2-0 win away to Shakhtar.
Brazil striker Hulk broke the deadlock in the 79th minute at the Donbass Arena, with a Razvan Rat own-goal in injury team putting the result beyond doubt.
It marks a spectacular decline for the Ukrainian champions.
Beaten in the quarter-finals against eventual winners Barcelona last season, they have just two points from five matches played and are consigned to last place in the group.