By John Leonidou at the GSP stadium
AC Sparta Praha denied Cypriot title-holders APOEL FC a shock victory with two goals in the last eight minutes of their UEFA Champions League second qualifying round first-leg tie.
Sparta who reached the first knockout round of last season's Champions League, trailed 2-0 from early in the second half, and although the visitors struggled in front of a crowd of 12,000 in Nicosia, Milan Pacanda and Tomáš Sivok were on hand to spare the Czech side's blushes.
It was a tentative opening, but on six minutes the game burst into life when Nektarios Alexandrou pounced on a defensive header by Radek Hochmeister and coolly curled the ball past the stranded Jaromír Blazek in the Sparta goal. The Czech champions almost pulled level in the eleventh minute when Karel Poborský released Michal Meduna but Michael Morphis in the APOEL goal spread himself superbly to deny the striker.
Pacanda thought he had equalised in the 43rd minute when Rastislav Michalík pulled the ball back from the by-line but his superb volley from the edge of the box crashed back off the post with Morphis well beaten.
APOEL made the perfect start to the second half when Christos Germanos raced away on the left to cross perfectly for Konstantinos Charalampides to score with a diving header at the far post. The home side were causing their more illustrious visitors all sorts of problems and could have gone 3-0 in front in the 53rd minute but Alexandrou lifted his shot over from five metres after a mazy run from Charalampides had opened the Sparta defence.
Morphis then produced a breathtaking fingertip save from Lukáš Zelenka's powerful cross-shot. Chances were being created at both ends as the teams tired in the oppressive heat. Thirteen minutes from time Charalampides's clever ball found Chrysostomos Michail but his shot just missed the target.
In the 82nd minute, Sparta made APOEL pay for that let-off, as Pacanda picked up a loose ball around 20 metres out and, moving the ball on to his left foot, curled a delightful shot past the helpless Morphis. A minute from the end substitute Sivok latched on to a clever knock-down from fellow replacement Tomáš Jun and sent in a strong shot to ensure his side will not have to make up a deficit in the return next Wednesday.