Champions League - APOEL record historic victory
Ailton scored the winner as APOEL Nicosia came from behind to beat Zenit St. Petersburg 2-1 and register their first ever victory in the Champions League group stage.
The Cypriot champions first appeared at this stage of the competition in 2009-10 but exited after drawing three games and losing the other three.
Konstantin Zyryanov put Zenit ahead after 63 minutes but Brazilian duo Gustavo Manduca and Ailton hit back with two goals in three minutes, before the visitors’ night went from bad to worse when Bruno Alves was sent off with 11 minutes remaining.
APOEL returned to the Champions League having defeated Skenderbeu Korce, Slovan Bratislava and Wisla Krakow respectively to qualify for the group stages again.
Meanwhile, Russian champions Zenit are also in their second group stage campaign, previously winning just one of their six games, a 2-0 away victory over BATE Borisov, in 2008-2009.
Zenit lined up with three central defenders across the back, while Ailton, who scored four goals in five games during APOEL’s qualifying campaign, was given the freedom of the front line.
APOEL dominated the opening exchanges without creating a clear-cut chance, with Ailton working the channels and showing glimpses of skill to open space but then finding himself isolated as his side’s lone striker.
Zenit looked casual from the off, miscuing a succession of ambitious long passes and inviting pressure from their hosts.
But APOEL were unable to take advantage until the 25th minute, when Ailton burst through the middle, only to get the ball trapped under his feet. That allowed Zenit goalkeeper Vyacheslav Malafeev to close down the angle before producing a smart save to keep out the 27-year-old Ailton’s chip.
Macedonia Ivan Trickovski then showed terrific strength to turn his man on the edge of the box before unleashing a fierce shot that whistled past the near post.
Zenit grew into the game as the half wore on and carved out their first chance just one minute before the break when Danny cut in from the left and found Konstantin Zyryanov on the edge of the box, but the Russian screwed his shot wide.
Ailton looked APOEL’s most likely architect in the first half and the same theme continued after the break. Trickovski and Ailton exchanged passes in the box but Malafeev got down superbly to keep out Trickovski’s snap-shot.
But it was Zenit who took the lead when Danny drove forward in the right channel before playing an inch-perfect through-ball to Zyryanov, who made no mistake in finishing from 12 yards.
That put the wind in the visitors' sails, with Danny controlling possession, teeing up Aleksandr Kerzhakov twice in two minutes, although the Russian was unable to take advantage on either occasion.
APOEL rallied, however, and drew level when Manduca seized upon a loose ball in the box after a miscued shot to slot home from six yards.
Zenit barely had time to recover after the restart when Ailton latched onto a neat through-ball on the left side of the box before curling a cool finish past Malafeev and into the far corner.
Alves was then giving his marching orders for pulling down Ailton, earning the Portuguese a second yellow card to complete a nightmare four minutes for Zenit.
But despite going down to 10-men, Luciano Spalletti’s side refused to lie down, with substitute Viktor Fayzulin hitting the post and Nicolas Lombaerts seeing his header go inches wide as the hosts held on.