Greece needs heroic performances in Brazil

The Euro 2004 champions will not be making headlines in Brazil and look set to bow out in the group stages.

    Greece may find it difficult to improve on their South Africa 2010 performance [GALLO/GETTY]
    Greece may find it difficult to improve on their South Africa 2010 performance [GALLO/GETTY]

    You don't have to be a die-hard football fan to that a watertight defence has been the secret behind Greece's rise to prominence in recent years.

    However, with the 2014 World Cup around the corner, Fernando Santos is yet to complete the puzzle of his back four and the line-up seems only half complete.

    Roma's Vasilis Torosidis will play on the right and Sokratis Papastathopoulos of Borussia Dortmund is all but assured of a place at central defence. But while José Holebas will be the favourite to assume duties on the left, the remaining centre-back position is still in question.

    Dimitris Siovas looked like the obvious choice but a serious ankle injury in training kept him out of action since January and subsequently out of Greece’s squad altogether despite having featured in half of the team's qualifiers.

    Olympiakos teammate Avraam Papadopoulos, who has featured in the blue and white only twice since his serious injury in the Euro 2012 opener against Poland, was also omitted as was Schalke's Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who has tasted first-team action just five times in the last 18 months.

    So, who will Santos go for? The experienced Vaggelis Moras has done well with Hellas Verona but not featured in the blue and white of the original Hellas in three years. Loukas Vyntra is considered a right-back despite playing in the heart of defence with Levante. That means Kostas Manolas, younger than both of them and probably the fastest man-marker in the country, will be rewarded for his display with Olympiakos with a starting place in Brazil.

    How they play

    Although Santos has converted his formation in the course of certain matches, Greece's 4-3-3 line-up is un-negotiable. As is the place of Orestis Karnezis between the posts. The Granada custodian was the single Greek to feature in all 12 of the side's qualifying games and has become the undisputed No 1 after Euro 2012.

    However, except for the defence, Santos is facing some tricky questions concerning the midfield as well. The 2004 golden generation of central midfielders has gone and the Portuguese tactician has been forced to experiment with at least 10 different players for the three available positions.

    Two of them, Kostas Katsouranis and right-back-turned-midfielder Yannis Maniatis, emerge favourites for two of the slots. The did square up and had to be separated by teammates and policemen when their clubs, PAOK and Olympiakos, clashed in a fiery Greek Cup semi-final second-leg a month ago.

    Katsouranis, 34, is one of just four Greeks to have surpassed a century of caps (109). Having turned 37 this spring, the evergreen Yorgos Karagounis appeared in 10 tournament matches so far. But he did come off the bench in six of them and although still widely regarded as the national side's heart and soul, it is more likely that the Fulham playmaker will give way in the starting-XI to either Kayserispor loanee Alexandros Tziolis or Andreas Samaris.

    Whoever Greece's three midfielders may be, their efficiency relies heavily on the contribution of the team's two wide-men. Despite having a middling season at club level with PAOK the only Greek to have scored in both a European Championship and a World Cup final phase, Dimitris Salpiggidis, was one of the main reasons behind Greece's success against Romania in the World Cup play-offs and with four goals their most productive player, besides top-scorer Kostas Mitroglou. His remarkable work ethic and stamina are second to none and his place on the right seems undisputed.

    And it's impossible to imagine Greece without Yorgos Samaras either. At 29 he may reluctantly be leaving Celtic after an impressive six-and-a-half year spell, but this World Cup may be his chance to attract attention. Although he hasn't scored for the national side since the 4-2 defeat to Germany in the Euro 2012 quarters, he did conjure up two assists and earn 23 fouls in his 10 qualifying outings. Together with Mitroglou they're arguably adding a spice of unpredictability in the team's game.

    Key player

    With five out of Greece's overall 16 goals in qualifying in only 15 attempts on target, it would have to be Mitroglou - especially if you consider that three of those goals were scored in the Romania double header.

    Born in Greece but raised in Germany, Mitroglou was drafted back to his motherland at 19 by Olympiakos. Widely considered as a genuine talent, he had to mature as a player during consecutive loan spells at Panionios and Atromitos before moving back to Pireas in the summer of 2012. His breath-taking performance with the Greek giants and 17 goals in only 19 outings earned him a lucrative deal with Fulham in January. The €15.2m paid for him by the west London club is the highest ever spent on a Greek footballer.

    The final squad

    Santos, in his World Cup squad, opted to select only four attackers. Dimitris Papadopoulos, another 2004 European Champion who revived his career in the past two seasons with Panthrakikos and Atromitos, was left out, as was Stefanos Athanasiadis, despite banging in 57 goals with PAOK in the last three years. That means the only recognised striker besides Mitroglou is Fanis Gekas.

    Among the best

    Greece have come a long way since the turn of the millennium. Bringing in Otto Rehhagel in August 2001 proved to be the turning point in the nation's football history, as just three years ago the Greeks had reached an all-time low 66th in the FIFA rankings. Less than three years later they would achieve one of the major upsets in any team sport by conquering Euro 2004.

    Since then Greece have competed in the final phase of every tournament they took part including the 2005 FIFA Confederations Cup, with the exception of the World Cup also held in Germany a year later. The team rose as high as eighth in the rankings on two occasions and currently sits 10th, above England, Belgium, the Netherlands and France.

    Third time lucky?

    After making the last-eight in Euro 2012, Greece will be making its third World Cup appearance in Brazil. Its first showing in USA '94 was hugely disappointing with three losses in as many games, failing to score and conceding 10. There was improvement in South Africa 2010 as the national side recorded its first ever victory, coming from a goal down to beat Nigeria 2-1. But 2-0 defeats against South Korea and Argentina saw the Greeks bow out in the group stage.


    Perhaps a similar fate awaits them this year as well. Facing the likes of high-flying Colombia and Didier Drogba's Ivory Coast, Santos' charges will realistically have to beat Japan if they are to have any chance of progressing. But that would be easier said than done, as the Samurai Blue play in a tempo this slow-paced Greek team may find hard to follow. And they found out the hard way nine years ago when the Japanese prevailed 1-0 in the two sides' only previous meeting, in the Confederations Cup.

    Even if Greece manages to overcome Japan, it would probably need an additional point gained against the group's two leading sides to make the last-16. It's not impossible, but it would take one or two truly heroic performances to achieve.

    Seven players started training this Monday in Agios Kosmas, Athens, with the rest of the squad set to follow until Thursday. Eight days later Greece will begin its long journey to Brazil with two stops for friendly matches in Lisbon and New York City, before landing in its World Cup base city of Aracaju on June 7. 

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


    All Hail The Algorithm

    All Hail The Algorithm

    A five-part series exploring the impact of algorithms on our everyday lives.

    The priceless racism of the Duke of Edinburgh

    The priceless racism of the Duke of Edinburgh

    Prince Philip has done the world an extraordinary service by exposing the racist hypocrisy of "Western civilisation".

    China will determine the future of Venezuela

    China will determine the future of Venezuela

    There are a number of reasons why Beijing continues to back Maduro's government despite suffering financial losses.