A mixture of joy and relief flowed through the blue-clad part of the stadium as Jan Rezek sealed the three points against Omonia on the 13th minute of injury time. For the previous 100 minutes, we had been clinging to the edge of our seats. It had been that kind of game.
It all started with the craziest opening 10 minutes of football probably ever witnessed at this stadium. First, Spadacio played a one-two with Roncatto and found himself with enough space to slice the Omonia defence open with a Xavi-esque through ball to which Laborde got first. Spungin, Omonia’s Israeli full-back, brought him down. Penalty. Most of us gasped in disbelief rather than celebrated when the ref pointed to the spot. It was our first penalty at home against Omonia in 23 years, the last one taken by the legendary Mike Obiku way back in 1989.
Laborde might have made a meal of it but it was a pen. Replays showed Spungin clearly clipping the Colombian’s left heel, just on the edge of the penalty box. Despite being the last man, luckily for the opposition the referee decided to show Spungin only a yellow card. Spadacio, our Brazilian playmaker, stepped up and hit it high on the left corner, sending the keeper the wrong way. 1-0.
Omonia were shellshocked and we were comfortable. May be too comfortable. In fact, we were so comfortable that a couple of minutes later Paulo Jorge, our Portuguese centre-back, decided to make things interesting by mishitting a back pass to the path of Omonia striker Freddy. He raced through towards the goal but, thankfully, placed his shot woefully wide. Suddenly, our defence lost confidence and we were all over the place, especially susceptible to high balls over the centre. Jorge, clearly rushed to be fit for the game, could not go on and asked to be subbed. Levy had to reshuffle his defence. Colin, who had started at right-back, moved to the centre in Jorge’s place, while Andjic came on to take his on the flank. Before our defenders found time to adapt to the changes, Efrem sent another high ball over. It bounced over the startled Colin and found Nuno Assis, the veteran Portuguese midfielder, all alone in the box. He hit it first time on the volley and over the bar. Relief!
These were the visitors’ two best chances of the game. It didn’t get any easier after that though. Without a win and hardly a goal in four games, they sought desperately to even the match. Our conscious retreat together with their slick passing helped them dominate for long periods but, once our defence settled, they could not penetrate. We, on the other hand, tried to hit them on the break, and on one such occasion Rezek found Laborde, whose shot went inches over the bar.
Whatever Omonia created till half-time came only from set-pieces, the best chance falling to defender Alabi, who tried to take advantage of a ricocheted shot but failed to head the ball in and cluttered into Valverde. There were calls for a penalty but neither player got to the ball before crashing onto each other. It would have been a very harsh call if a penalty was given.
The pattern of the game did not change much in the second half. Omonia huffed and puffed but lacked real incisiveness, despite creating some decent chances. Freddy volleyed a cross from the left over the bar and had an angled shot parried by Valverde. Andjic saved a Christofi header on the line, while Soares rattled the crossbar with a thunderous shot from 30 metres out. Then, on 70 minutes, the ref decided to spice things up by sending Ilic off for a handball -his second bookable offence- although the Slovenian defender had been clearly pushed by Freddy to the ground before extending an arm at the ball. But just as we were bracing ourselves to be bombarded in the final minutes of the game, a couple of incidents changed its course.
The Omonia coach, desperate to salvage at least a point, threw all his available forwards but left almost no one in midfield to actually feed them. Levy, meanwhile, reinforced his midfield by bringing Laban on in Laborde’s place. That, together with the idiocy of some Omonia fans who threw flares on the pitch and got the game suspended for 14 minutes, took the sting out of the visitors’ rhythm. After the restart, Spadacio and Laban were able to run down the clock by toying with Omonia’s defenders along the wings. Then, with one minute left, Spadacio intercepted a clearance in the box and the ball fell to Laban. The Frenchman turned and found Rezek unmarked near the penalty spot. The Czech coolly slotted home, scoring his fourth goal in as many games. Game over.
Make no mistake, the better team on the night did not win. But we couldn’t care less. This was a hard fought victory achieved through sheer guts, sweat and streetwise nous at key moments. We had finally beaten our bogey team on our own patch after four years and nine unsuccessful attempts, despite ending the game without our starting central defensive pair. There’s no bigger statement of our title credentials than this.