By Stel Stylianou
Whilst the Anorthosis-AEK fixture isn’t a notoriously hostile local derby, this weekend’s encounter is sure to be lively as the hosts aim to turn the screw on leaders Apollon.
Anorthosis’ club history can be summed up in one word; political. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974, Anorthosis were forced to leave Famagusta, relocating elsewhere. Larnaca was their chosen destination, although most of their home games were played in different stadiums all over the island until the Antonis Papadopoulos stadium was finally built in 1986.
Supporters would have to wait nine years for a league title at their new home but in 2008 the club created history by becoming the first Cypriot team to enter the Champions League group stage, beating the likes of Rapid Wien and Olympiacos in the qualifiers.
Despite finishing bottom of the group, Anorthosis ended the campaign unbeaten at home, having defeated Panathinaikos 3-1and drawing against Werder Bremen (2-2) and Internazionale (3-3). However, keeping in line with Cypriot football rhetoric, there was drama at board level. Club President Andreas Panteli resigned in December 2008, causing many supporters to questionhow much of the Champions League prize money he walked out of the club with. Three months later, Temuri Ketsbaia – who guided the club to their first league title since 2005 and a Champions League spot, left the club by mutual consent.
Panteli was arrested in Sofia and extradited to Cyprus four years later, where he would be charged for fraud; an offence that included issuing bounced cheques.
Anorthosis current president, Evgenios Hamboullas, is another controversial figure; although he isn’t as low key as Panteli. A former MP for the Democratic Rally (DISY) party in Cyprus, Hamboullas caused controversy in 2016 after posting an image of himself on Facebook, posing beside a plate of “ambeloboullia” –a protected species, also known as a “songbird” or “blackcap”. Hamboullas caused more outrage in 2019 when he called on locals to attack activists who oppose the illegal hunting of ambeloboullia, saying:
“They are not activists, they are s**t ruffians! Break their bones wherever you find them and if you can’t, call me and I will help.”
On the pitch however, Anorthosis haven’t been embroiled in as much controversy as their club president. Aside from being awarded controversial penalties against Omonoia and Nea Salamina, Ketsbaia’s men have won six out of nine league matches and are level on points with Apollon at the top of the table.
Ketsbaia’s reappointment as head coach in the summer of 2019 wasn’t a surprise, neither was the instant impact he made. In his first full season back at the club, Anorthosis missed out on the title on goal difference. Nevertheless, had it not been for the Cyprus FA cancelling the season just as the title playoffs got underway, Anorthosis may have gone on to claim their 14thchampionship. Their form going into the playoffs was dreadful.Four defeats in six, one being a 5-0 loss at Ethnikos cost them dearly. In hindsight, a 4-0 loss at Ethnikos would have given Anorthosis the title.
Up until matchday 13, Anorthosis were unbeaten. An injury to Spanish playmaker and top goalscorer Rayo severely damaged their title hopes as Henning Berg’s Omonoia Nicosia hit top form.
This season resembles last. Anorthosis have either won convincingly or ground out points in matches where they’ve been second best. A 3-1 defeat at home to title rivals Apollon on matchday 4 was followed by four consecutive wins – one being an easy 2-0 victory over APOEL, which led to the sacking of Marinos Ouzounidis 24 hours later.
Unlike last season, Anorthosis haven’t put all of their eggs in one basket. Rayo’s departure in the summer left the door open for Georgian attacking midfielder Tornike Okriashvili, who has netted 4 in 8 league matches. Dor Micha arrived from Maccabi Tel Aviv and has settled very well in the number 10 role, whilst another Georgian, Giorgi Kvilitaia, has impressed since signing on loan from KAA Gent with four goals in seven matches. Throw Greek striker Michalis Manias into the mix with three goals in six games, and it is clear to see that the goals are being shared all over the team.
Ketsbaia’s managerial style and system mirrors the aggressiveness shown in his playing days. A member of staff at another club in Cyprus described Anorthosis’ intensity as “what you’d get from rugby players”. Like it or not, Anorthosis are a very physical side that commits many tactical fouls – many of which have been quite reckless. In Gordon Schildenfeld, Yevgen Selin and Branko Vrgoc, Ketsbaia has three intimidating defenders, whilst Josef Husbauer and Murtaz Daushvili roam the middle of the park like a pack of wolves.
Controversy and Ketsbaia appear to go hand in hand. The former Newcastle striker has been involved in at least three altercations with members of opposition coaching staff this season – two of which landed him with fines. On one occasion, Ketsbaia had to be held back by his players as he chased someone down the tunnel. No one is safe from Ketsbaia. Not even his players. During their 1-1 draw against Omonoia in matchday 3, he was heard yelling “No no no. You f*****g stupid idiot” at one of his players after a misplaced pass.
Perhaps the most important player in the squad is Portuguesemidfielder Margaca. The 36 year old, who was a hero at Omonoia Nicosia before being thrown out of the club for allegedly accepting cash in exchange for mediocre performances, has brought that extra bit of experience and creativity required to break down sides that defend deep.
A 3-2 defeat at FC Basel in the Europa League qualifying stage has turned out to be a blessing in disguise as the club can focus on attempting to go one better than last season and win the title. A win against AEK before the international break would be a shot in the arm and further enhance their credentials as champions elect.