Greece v Russia, June 16, 7.45pm
June 16 ~ Greek fan culture is usually a simmering hotbed but few fans are excited by tonight's Group A decider against Russia. In the build-up to the match, the squad's young players led a low-key press conference, in which left-back Jose Holebas admitted: "I am not satisfied with how I played, the goals came from my mistakes, it’s rational that I am not happy. But I will get over it." Get over it Holebas will, but after following a shaky performance against Poland with a shocker against the Czech Republic, he will probably be doing so from the bench, as Monaco’s Giorgos Tzavelas slots in.
The return of Sokratis Papastathopoulos from suspension will also bolster the back line. Callers to radio show Sports FM have complained that manager Fernando Santos has played it too safe. He has kept faith with the veterans of 2004, such as Kostas Chalkias and Kostas Katsouranis, packed the defence and looked only for the long ball going forward. He has also taken criticism for allowing captain Giorgos Karagounis to somnambulantly wrack up a record number of caps (he will equal Theodoros Zagorakis’s record tonight).
This critique does not seem entirely fair. Having played 18 – winning four, drawing three and losing 11 – Greece must have the worst record over 90 minutes at major finals of any team to have won an international football championship. Indeed, the only time they have won a game at the Euros, they went on to win the tournament.
Greece have a relatively small population and the quality of the national side is always likely to ebb and flow. There are a handful of good young players around – such as Schalke’s Kyriakos Papadopoulos – but his is a generation of talent yet to fully emerge.
Nevertheless, goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis has been hugely missed since he retired, and it seems perverse that Santos overlooked APOEL’s in-form Dionisis Chiotis after the Cypriot club’s fine season in Europe. It is also a shame that Greece’s attacking starlets – Sotiris Ninis, Giannis Fetfatzidis and Kostas Mitroglou – have barely featured. The much hyped but injury-plagued Ninis, alas, seems in danger of winding up something like a Hellenic Paul Lake.
The lack of attackers used properly has not been helped by stalwart head-on-a-stick Angelos Charisteas not making the squad. The long ball game does not play to the strengths of Giorgos Samaras, Theofanis Gekas or Dimitris Salpigidis.
Perhaps this failure to get the maximum out of the resources at hand is why the team snatched a draw from the jaws of victory against Poland and lost when a draw ought to have been salvageable against the Czechs.
"We will beat Russia and advance to the knock-out round," tweeted goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis. It is telling that this instinctively seems extremely unlikely, when, on paper at least, it is more than plausible. This is a Greece team that topped a qualifying group featuring Croatia and Israel – they are capable footballers.
By contrast, Russia have been entertaining going forward but look plain flakey rather than just loveably erratic at the back. According to the FIFA rankings, Russia are 13th and Greece 15th. According to the bookies, Russia are 3/4 on. Scott Anthony