Scotland relief that Cyprus Champions League success won’t translate to Euros

Konstantinos Laifis of Cyprus, left, battles with Belgian forward Michy Batshuayi during a world cup qualifier in Brussels in 2017. Pictuer: John Thys/AFP/Getty
Konstantinos Laifis of Cyprus, left, battles with Belgian forward Michy Batshuayi during a world cup qualifier in Brussels in 2017. Pictuer: John Thys/AFP/Getty
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If club football was a reliable barometer of an international team’s capabilities, Scotland would have genuine cause for alarm when they face Cyprus tomorrow night.

In the last eight years, Cypriot clubs have achieved a combined tally of 12 group stage participations in either the Champions League or Europa League – that’s two more appearances than Scottish teams have managed in the same period.

But, encouragingly for new Scotland manager Steve Clarke, the improved performance levels of the Mediterranean island’s club sides have not been matched by their national team.

APOEL Nicosia, recently crowned Cypriot champions for a seventh consecutive season, have established their domestic superiority through a recruitment policy which sees their squad dominated by South American players.

That has allowed them to raise their profile to an unprecedented degree on a bigger stage, even going on to reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League in one of the four seasons they qualified for the group stage.

Apollon Limassol, who beat Aberdeen in the Europa League qualifiers two years ago, have been similarly proactive in the foreign transfer market as they have reached the group stage of that competition four times in the last six seasons.

While APOEL and Apollon still provide a sizeable proportion of the Cyprus squad which arrived in Glasgow on Thursday, the overall standard of players available to head coach Ran Ben Shimon is lacking in star quality.

Since the Israeli took charge of Cyprus two years ago, he has struggled to make any significant progress with a nation currently 89th in the Fifa world rankings – 45 places below Scotland.

Cyprus have won only two of their last 11 competitive fixtures, the most notable of them in September last year when they came from behind to beat Slovenia 2-1 at home in a Nations League match. Their only other victory in that sequence came in March when they swatted Euro 2020 Group I makeweights San Marino aside 5-0 in Nicosia.

Three days later, they earned praise for their performance against world No 1 side Belgium, losing just 2-0 on their own patch to Roberto Martinez’s star-studded outfit. But the Belgians scored their goals inside the first 18 minutes through Eden Hazard and Michy Batshuayi and were able to ease their way through the rest of the contest.

While Cyprus can provide awkward opposition at home to anyone, they are generally far less competitive on their travels. They have won just one of their last 14 away games and that was against the minnows of Gibraltar two years ago.

Konstantinos Laifis is one of the few members of the Cypriot squad who has forged a career for himself away from the island. The 26-year-old, who can play either at left back or in midfield, is a regular for Standard Liege in Belgium.

Laifis, who should earn his 29th cap at Hampden, is under no illusion about the size of the task facing Cyprus in the next few days. After Scotland, they move on to face Russia in Nizhny Novogrod on Tuesday.

“They are two very difficult matches away from home at a difficult time for us,” said Laifis. “They are also two very important games which will determine how we go on to perform in this qualifying group.

“I can’t say how many points I think we can get in Scotland and Russia but our goal is to try to win both games. We are ready to give our best.”

Cyprus have added some fresh faces to their squad with 19-year-old Nea Salamis defender Ioannis Kosti and Apollon’s 22-year-old winger Ioannis Pittas both in contention to make their full international debuts against Scotland.

“I’m always happy when I see new guys coming into the national team,” added Laifis. “It’s a bit strange for me, because now I feel like an old man of the team, but I’m sure the younger guys have a lot to offer for Cyprus.”

But any potential threat to Scotland is likely to come from more established players, such as 26-year-old forward Pieros Sotiriou, who plays for Copenhagen in the Danish Superliga and has scored eight goals in 33 games for his country so far.

Sotiriou’s strike partner, the physically imposing Nestoras Mitidis of AEL Limassol, and winger Georgios Efrem, a former Arsenal academy graduate who spent time at Rangers and Dundee a decade ago, are other stalwarts.

There is little evidence, however, to suggest this Cyprus squad will be capable of preventing Scotland maintaining their 100 per cent winning record in matches between the countries.