Group A Preview

Russia favored to beat Greece

June 15, 2012
By Roger Bennett

The cautious Greeks face counterattacking Russia knowing that only victory will move them out of a wide-open Group A and into the knockout round.

What’s at stake?

In drawing with Poland and losing to the Czech Republic, underdog Greece has impressed most when it had its back against the wall. Now the Greeks need to beat a Russian team that has trumped them at the past two Euros and looked like the cream of the group in 2012. Greece knows it has labored in tournament play since winning Euro 2004. It failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup and limped out of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup at the group stage.

Russia, needing only a draw, has impressed with the efficiency of its counterattack. With five goals in two games it’s the tournament’s joint top-scorer. Despite its clinical finishing, coach Dick Advocaat is said to be considering the idea of benching misfiring Aleksandr Kerzhakov, who has blasted all 11 of his shots wildly off-target. The Russians are on a 16-game unbeaten run and enjoy a head-to-head edge of 13-3-5 against Greece.

Russia's Alan Dzagoev has been one of the tournament's revelations.

Style and tactics

To win, defense-minded Greece must break its mold and score, a task at which it has labored, netting on average only once in each of its past seven matches. Set pieces may initially offer Greece its best threat, but as the game progresses, it could seek to replicate the game plan employed by Poland during their 1-1 draw. The Poles used a holding midfielder to smother the space in front of the back four -- the area in which the Russian counterattack seeks to thrive -- and then countered themselves. However, Greece fielded three forwards toward the end of its loss against the Czech Republic and still lacked a cutting edge.

Russia has played some of the tournament’s most organized football, a product of the familiarity its players have with one another from club football. Seven come from Zenit St. Petersburg, five from CSKA Moscow and four from Dynamo Moscow. The Russians will need to be at their best against the Greeks, who will pack the midfield in the initial stages of the game, though they will be aware of their opponents’ vulnerability down the left flank.

Players to watch

Greece: Veteran striker Theofanis Gekas is the closest thing the Greeks have to a goal-scoring hero. Unlucky defender Sokratis Papastathopoulos will return from suspension after his dubious red card in the opening game of the tournament. And second-string goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis will retain the gloves and gamely attempt to keep the Russians at bay.

Russia: Coveted young star Alan Dzagoev is the tournament’s joint top-scorer after netting three times, and teammate Andrei Arshavin has scored or assisted on five of Russia’s last seven tournament goals. Igor Denisov has been an unsung hero as the lynchpin in midfield.

What to expect?

Greece will treat the game like a final and will forage desperately for goals. The Russians will be content to soak up their pressure and pick off goals through their ruthless counterattack. Arshavin will be the key to the game. The farther he is driven into his own half, the less he can influence the game.

Intangibles

More than 20,000 Russian fans are expected to attend the game, twice the number that attended their tie with Poland, a match marked by outbreaks of violence. Polish police are braced at the ready, and UEFA has threatened to strip the Russians up to six points from the team's Euro 2016 qualifying campaign if the violent scenes are repeated.

Who will win?

If Russia is focused, it should win 3-1.