My apologies to the legions of fans of this blog who were disappointed by the lack of an update after Greece’s latest in a long line of major tournament debacles. As a result of a few non-Euro 2012 related study commitments (how dare my university set exams during the sacred football month of June), I’m caught in a bit of a no-man’s land, unable to dedicate an entire piece to the post-mortem of the 2-1 loss to the Czech Republic on the eve of what is probably our final appearance at these finals against Russia.
So unsurprisingly frustrating was the last performance that it warrants some type of analysis, so in the interests of covering all bases, I’ll turn to what I consider to be the greatest film of all time as providing the framework for this piece.
Greece need to beat Russia to progress.
This is the nightmare scenario we feared before the competition began and it has come to fruition: the Russians with everything to play for, by no means assured of their place in the next round and approaching the match in good form. WRONG
This is the nightmare scenario we feared before the competition began and it has come to fruition: Greece will need to score a goal in their final group game.
A harsh assessment? Consider that the two goals we’ve scored in Poland have come courtesy of goalkeeping blunders, presenting our strikers with an empty net to slot the ball into – in truth, on neither occasion was I remotely confident that they would actually succeed, given this team’s lack of attacking confidence and ideas.
Despite again improving after the break, this Greek side proved utterly devoid of hunger, creativity and adventure in attack. Is it a coaching issue or simply a case of the players not being good or willing enough to score goals? I’m going to say the latter, though the managerial post-mortem I’ll leave till after our participation in the tournament has concluded (so make sure you’re at this page on Sunday).
Taking the initiative and winning games is something this squad hasn’t done well over the past decade and to suddenly try to do so against a team that is lethal on the counter-attack and extremely mobile would be suicidal. So it’ll probably me more of the same from Fernando Santos’ men, who will look to keep things tight and pinch a goal at some point – not that it’s worked for them particularly well so far against sides of far lesser ability.
So, just to recap, the scenario is as follows: a team that doesn’t know how to attack needs to attack a team that operates exclusively and successfully on the counter-attack (and they only need to draw to progress).
After almost being punished for a slow start in their opening game against Poland, the Greeks recovered and learned from their mistake, starting strongly against Czech Republic side who were always likely to come out firing after their 4-1 defeat. WRONG
After almost being punished for a slow start in their opening game against Poland, the Greeks did exactly the same thing in their second game and were punished even more severely by a Czech Republic side who were always likely to come out firing after their 4-1 defeat.
This side has its limitations, so defeat in either, both, or all three of its matches at the group stages of Euro 2012 would hardly have come as a shock. A slow start against Poland is also forgivable given it does happen in football, understandable also because of the scale of the occasion and the fact that the opposing team were the host nation. But to do it a second time, just days after, in a far worse manner and against a team who were always going to replicate the approach of the Poles, is simply unacceptable.
Were these players not expecting anything different? If they weren’t, then the question has to be asked: were they aware that a football game was underway somewhere in Wroclaw while they were cruising through the opening half? (Just to clarify, there was a Euro 2012 game in Wroclaw at that exact time between Greece and the Czech Republic...)
Even with Fernando Santos’ changes at half time, the performance was only fractionally improved in the second half, thanks largely to the Czechs taking their foot off the gas and losing Tomas Rosicky to injury. A lack of creativity is nothing new for this team and going for a direct route to goal was always going to be the result. What is particularly galling about that approach though is the sheer lack of intensity, conviction and desire behind it, with nowhere near enough players committing themselves forward or looking as if they wanted the ball in order to change the game.
Despite the largely turgid performance, somehow Greece enter their final group game with their destiny entirely in their hands.
A victory would ensure them a place in the knockout stages regardless of other results and if they were to perform a miracle and beat the Russians – make no mistake about it, it would be nothing short of a miracle if it happened – then Theofanis Gekas’ goal against the Czechs will be of a similar significance to that scored by Zisis Vryzas against Russia in 2004.
When you consider Italy - who have been placed in a far tougher group and performed better than Greece, picking up two points from games against Spain and Croatia – might still be heading home if they win their final match against Ireland, it really is amazing that Greece are in such a position.
Further boosts for Santos include the return of first-choice centre-back Sokratis Papastathopoulos, who will allow Kostas Katsouranis – whose aimless punts into the box reminded me of why I have directed so much vitriol towards him before his improved performance against Poland - to return to midfield, bringing a little more balance to the side. Kostas Chalkias meanwhile has been ruled out through injury in a blessing that can barely be disguised after he cost his side at least two goals in its opening two games, allowing for the far more steady Michalis Sifakis to take his place between the sticks.
Logic tells me Russia will win this match by a comfortable margin but Dick Advocaat’s side certainly aren’t invincible, as they showed the other night as they were held to a 1-1 draw by the hosts.
Is it too much to hope that this team can rouse itself for just 90 minutes and summon up the backs-to-the-wall mentality that has kept it alive in the tournament thus far?
We Greece fans are long overdue a miracle...
It’s only in the aftermath of the first round of group games at Euro 2012 that you can truly appreciate the value of the Greece’s point against Poland. I write this entry just a couple of hours before England take on France to kick off their campaign, so I wonder if either of those sides will be on the brink of elimination after just 90 minutes, just as the Netherlands and Portugal seem to be.
Needlessly to say, these teams have at their disposal a talent pool that is of a different football universe to Greece (but seeing as how we apparently invented the Universe and everything in it, I guess it doesn't really matter all that much...).
Yet despite boasting two of the world’s biggest celestial football bodies in their respective starting line-ups in the form of Robin Van Persie and Cristiano Ronaldo, both are in a far more precarious position than Fernando Santos’ side at this early stage of the tournament.
Granted, the opposition they faced was of a higher calibre than that of Poland, though you can’t discount the impact of a home crowd who’s support Franciszek Smuda’s capitalized on during a blistering opening 45 minutes. Greece had one mission: to survive, which they did thanks to a combination of poor finishing, inspired coaching and retrospectively, a refereeing error that helped more than hindered them.
So while the Dutch and the Portuguese squads face departures that would not be well received back in their homelands after just two games, the Greeks are perhaps slight favourites to pip the Czechs and Poland to second spot. To further put the achievement into context, Greece have suffered defeat in their first match at every major tournament in which they’ve competed, with the exception of Euro 2004. Meekly surrendering three points to Sweden in 2008 and then allowing the Korea Republic to take advantage of their infighting in 2010 were deflating occasions for fans after much anticipation in the build-up.
Despite the potential ramifications of Giorgos Karagounis’ penalty miss, the situation could be far worse considering the opening 45 minutes of the Poland game was frighteningly reminiscent of our start to the previous Euro and World Cup.
It’s an almost awkward feeling heading into the second game against the Czech Republic, seeing as how their plight is more like that of previous Greek teams. Momentum is undoubtedly with Santos and his players but there are interesting dilemmas for the Portuguese manager on the eve of kick-off.
The first is whether he seizes the initiative against a team who’s confidence will be in tatters following their mauling at the hands of a slick Russia. I personally saw the game against the Czechs as the most winnable given Greece’s recent slow starts at finals and the fact that Poland would come out fired up in the opener. However, if Dick Advocaat’s men rip through the hosts – and they very well could – that would render their final match virtually meaningless and it’s unlikely the Dutch tactician would risk his best players on the eve of the knockout stages.
A weakened Russia are a beatable Russia, with this team still just a shadow of the Arshavin-inspired machine that reached the semi-finals of Euro 2008. Santos might just be willing to settle for a point in this game whilst banking on Poland to lose their second match. It might seem overly pragmatic to rely on other results for your own progress but considering how injuries and suspension have deprived Greece of key personnel, regroup and regather wouldn’t be a bad mentality against the Czechs.
While Santos won’t play for a draw, he’ll certainly reprise his defence first, attack second approach and look to hurt Tomas Rosicky and friends on the counter-attack in the same fashion that Russia did. If Greece are to keep things tight at the back then they’ll need to seriously consider the make up of their defence and midfield with Sokratis Papastathopoulos suspended and Avraam Papadopoulos out of the tournament through an injury he picked up in the first half against the Poles.
Those are two starting centre-backs who were at the heart of Greece’s miserly defence during qualifying. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Kostas Katsouranis were the makeshift pairing during the second half of the opening fixture and did a superb job shackling the dangerous Robert Lewandowski, so it would seem the problem has been solved for Santos; Papadopoulos’ youthful exuberance gave Greece an increased mobility and aggression at the back, while Katsouranis relocation from midfield to defence improved both departments and saw him turn in his best performance for the national team in years.
However, an eventful Greek campaign took another twist with the news that Georgios Fotakis suffered a thigh injury at training.
It’s amazing to think that before the tournament began, the PAOK man would have been considered nothing more than a fringe player who might come off the bench. Yet his potential absence could change the entire dynamic of Santos’ side; Fotakis could potentially have taken Katsouranis’ place in midfield with the latter allowed to remain in defence. Instead, his injury may necessitate a gamble on the inexperienced Grigoris Makos of AEK – who before the start of Euro 2012 was beneath even Fotakis in the midfield pecking order – or on Stelios Malezas, the squad’s fifth-choice centre-back if you consider Katsouranis a potential defender.
Whatever the scenario, it seemingly is a case of the lesser of evils when you consider Katsouranis moving back into the centre of the park to accommodate for Malezas would deprive both departments.
Jose Holebas’ poor performance at left-back could bring further change at the back, with the rather more steady Georgios Tzavellas only beaten to a starting spot because his club form this season wasn’t as impressive as that of the Olympiacos man. With the Theodor Gebre Selassie set to be marauding down the right flank for the Czechs, can another chance be afforded to Holebas? It might seem harsh to axe the German-born Greek after just one match but these are the sort of snap decisions that can turn things around in tournament football.
Equally important changes will also need to be made in attack, where Sotiris Ninis flattered to deceive after being handed a start. Theofanis Gekas too was ineffective, while their replacements Kostas Fortounis and Dimitris Salpingidis exerted considerable influence on the match, the latter scoring the equalizer and winning a penalty. Will Georgios Samaras be replaced by Fortounis after a typically frustrating display against Poland to make way for teenager Fortounis, or will he be given a central berth with Gekas the man to make way?
Even goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias’ position is not safe after his rash decision to rush out presented Lewandowski with an open net and served as a reminder of his error-prone ways.
A squad that has based its modern success on stability will instead need a bit of ingenuity on the part of its manager if it is to progress further in this tournament. And while there are considerable problems Santos needs to solve against the Czech Republic, the reward will be greater than that offered to Greece after the second game at previous finals, which makes this a rather more satisfying dilemma for manager, player and fan alike.