||ESPNsoccernet: Euro 2008
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
ESPNsoccernet: June 12, 4:34 PM UK
Time not kind to forgotten champions Greece
John Brewin in Salzburg.
It couldn't work again now could it? Greece won Euro 2004 through a mix of grit, brio and sheer athleticism and the inability of their opponents to find an answer to an approach which suffered from such a severe lack of aesthetic that Otto Rehhagel's men are forgotten champions just four years on.
In Salzburg, it was even more difficult to think of Greece as defending European champions. Their non-qualification for the 2006 World Cup in Germany had given rise to the idea that victory in Portugal was a fluke; this loss to an ageing and nervous Sweden team gives considerable weight to that theory.
Rehhagel, a man who has the freedom of 'Hellas' after masterminding them to a title that ranks alongside Denmark's win in 1992 as shock of shocks in the European Championship, still had it all to prove in sending his team out in Salzburg.
In the city that gave Mozart to the world, few could expect Greece to play the sweet music that Portugal and the Dutch had demonstrated in their opening matches. And Rehhagel, a man not given to bowing to the conventions of modern-day total football, rigidly stuck to the approach that has made him successful as an international coach with his adopted country. Far more Salieiri than Wolfgang Amadeus, the near-seventy-year-old is hardly going to change his pragmatic approach now.
He selected three English-style central defenders in Traianos Dellas, Paraskevas Antzas and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, whose style in no way resembled the onlooking Franz Beckenbauer and a midfield that was more defensive than offensive and in no way resembled Michel Platini, sat with 'Der Kaiser' in the stands. But could the formula work four years on? It surely couldn't. And so it proved.
Sitting back was again the order of the Greek day for much of the first half though Charisteas, the scorer of the winning goal in the final in Lisbon and among the six survivors from 2004, showed why he is so idolised in his country if not by fans of his various European clubs.
With Fanis Gekas woeful as a lone striker, sweet solitude was the order of the day for the man who plays not too far away in Bavaria for Nuremburg. His skill in creating a couple of chances for himself from the right wing meant that the 2004 plan looked likely to bear fruit.
For the first hour, Sweden's own class of 2004, the partnership of Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, failed to profit from the good work done in midfield by Anders Svensson and Daniel Andersson, whose neat passing found both players in good positions that were squandered.
Larsson, back after another of those Sinatra-style retirements, twice passed when the 'Henke' vintage of Celtic yore would surely have shot. Zlatan's national team goal drought of two-and-a-half years looked to be weighing heavy as he deliberated when bearing down on the Greek defence on 23 minutes and later looped a header over the bar on the half hour.
Though Bassinas had a shot saved by Isaakson just before half-time, the Greeks merely seemed happy enough to play keep-ball when they had possession rather than going for goal. The plan, as ever, was to let the opposition tire itself out.
After a half-time break in which Lars Lagerback must have had a go at his misfiring star strikers, on came another Celtic man in Giorgos Samaras, with Gekas rightly binned. Had Greece gone attack-minded? Er, no. But it was still a case of the Swedes snatching at half-chances, with Wilhelmsson punting over when Nikopolidis dashed out of goal.
Greece and their fans then got more into the game as ageing Swedish legs looked to be tiring. Though, in truth, both their best chances came from Swedish mistakes. Karagounis nearly snuck in on some deliberation from Mellberg and Alexandersson while Greek hackles were most raised when Petter Hanson nearly put through his own net.
And then, at last, came what the Swedes and the purists had been waiting for.
Zlatan and Larsson linked to give the chance to the Inter Milan man to curve in a tremendous shot into the Greek net on 67 minutes, Then, almost as soon as the first scorer was subbed to rest his troublesome knee, up popped Petter Hansson to bundle in after Freddie Ljungberg had missed a one-on-one and sub Johan Elmander had lobbed in the rebound; an untidy goal to end an untidy match.
And it signalled the end of the right of Greece to lord it over Europe. History will surely regard Euro 2004 as an anomaly.
SALZBURG WATCH: This beautiful city is the perfect place to visit as a tourist, though the bijou boutiques and art shops will have rarely been visted by so many men in football shirts.
STADIA WATCH: A long way out of town if you catch the seemingly unending 'Stadtbus' yet four minutes on a train, the Wals-Siezenheim is a compact arena overlooked by a rather grand casino, which once gave the local club team that plays in the Austrian Bundesliga its name. Until, that is, a certain 'energy' drink took over its moniker. Its wooden casing gave Swedes that log-cabin look they're familiar with.
UEFA WATCH: Far more generous to the press than FIFA were two years ago. No charges for web access and cafeteria that actually serves people is a step up from 'Blatter's revenge' of 2006.
NO SHAME WATCH: England may not be at the championship but Steve McClaren is quite happy to be there. His grinning chops were seen tucking into an Austrian stew in the media centre. After attending Croatia's win over Austria, he was watching Russia's game with Spain rather intently - he's seen them play before too.
FANS VERDICT: The Swedes outnumbered the Greeks in the fan parks, yet it was chants of 'Hellas' which chimed with some enthusiastic drumming on the banks of the Salzach river. In the ground 'Sverige' dominated, blue and yellow outnumbering the Greeks, whose lack of voice matched their team's lack of ambition.
SWEDEN VERDICT: Experienced, perhaps too experienced, but well deserving of their win because they at least wanted to win. Larsson looked leggy, so too Zlatan, but their link for the first half showed Lagerback's decision to lure Larsson back might just work. A win over Russia and the Swedes are through. Though Guus Hiddink's men will, and have to, go for the win themselves. A lot depends on Zlatan's knee.
GREECE VERDICT: Stodgy, lacking in craft and surely a busted flush. Rehhagel will have to perform another miracle to get them into the quarters. Just don't (ever) expect them to play attacking football. The game has moved on four years. For which we should be thankful.
GROUP D VERDICT: Spain are odds-on. But their test will come in the quarters; where that failing nerve will be tested again. Sweden v Russia now looks the key game to decide who else goes through. Greece can profit from the Spanish resting players in the third game. Their hopes are as slim as that.
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