EURO 2012: can the Greeks dare to dream?

With Greece squeezing through their group ahead of Russia and Poland, Twitter’s @sleepy_nik agreed to write a piece for CoA on his country’s hopes. Nik can be found posting at the excellent Manchester United site Stretford End.

In response to the title, logic tells us most certainly not, but since when has the beautiful game been defined by logic? Germany remain 2/1 favourites to lift the trophy, and have a wealth of attacking talent only matched by the Spaniards (Goetze is yet to take to the pitch). Yet Greece are here on merit, and needing to find no extra motivation on Friday night, coupled with an eloquently prepared coach at the helm in Fernando Santos (and not too distant memories of the raid on Lisbon), there is always a chance to cause an upset.

Here I’ll take a look at what the Greeks will have to do in order to achieve the impossible.

Santos must continue to use his instinct

Recently voted coach of the decade in Greece for all his work with teams such as AEK Athens, PAOK Salonika and Panathinaikos, the Portuguese coach couldn’t have settled in much better since the departure of King Otto. Only two defeats in 21 games, a tactical whiz (particularly after the break) and with the added bonus of applying greater risk than Rehhagel, Santos has already achieved what he desired from the outset: quarter final qualification. He will recognise that his team starts as the big underdog, especially without his key centre half (Avraam Papadopoulos) and central midfielder and captain, Karagounis – but his self-confidence and belief in his team’s capability remains unbroken. If his players can follow his strict tactical instruction (shape and through marking), they have a chance.

Of potential importance could be the surprise inclusion of Ninis. The soon-to-be Parma youngster started the first game of the tournament here, but due to a combination of having limited time on the ball and a lack of fitness having not played too many competitive games since his long injury lay-off, has been overlooked ever since. The talented youngster (who will be aiming higher than Parma in the years to come), could and perhaps should, come in for Gekas, providing greater authority in possession than the veteran (who has had the least possession in the tournament), battling qualities when retreating into defensive positions and a creative aura when in the attacking third. Gekas’ strengths are his wily opportunism, getting in behind the centre half and goal poaching – none of which seem suitable to this game, especially when the emerging talent of Hummels has played without breaking a sweat thus far.

Santos has used Ninis, Salpigidis and Fortounis with great aplomb from the bench, and has selected the right eleven to do the job in each game – Ninis will surely be his instinct for this one (as it may have been anyway to freshen up a jaded midfield), but will he trust it?

Wide forwards must stay disciplined

The roles of Salpigidis and Samaras are very much different to those of Muller and Podolski. Both players have worked fantastically hard to keep the defensive shape of the team, despite often being the only key out-ball too in an attacking 4-3-3 template, whereas their German counterparts have stayed high up the pitch. Samaras in particular was a shining example of this versus Russia (in the ‘Charisteas role’), tracking Anyukov doubling up on Dzagoev, but also using the ball wisely when in possession. Despite finding himself deep with the ball, he was often able to bide the team time by dribbling out of the defence, awaiting the support. There will be occasion, albeit very rare, where Samaras or Salpigidis may have the chance to get in behind attack minded fullbacks Lahm and Boateng; Samaras’ opportunism versus the Russians through the left of centre was superb, but Greece will have to be precise in their direct play, and hurry to support these attacking moves.

It is in such attacking transitions that the German team is at its efficient best, and Santos will be well aware of the threat they pose, even when on the ball within their own half. The underrated, Khedira opitimises the functionality of their midfield, and with Schweinsteiger and Ozil just ahead, the combination play can often be irresistible. Khedira’s defensive energy is well known, but less understood is the benefit of his off the ball runs, creating space for the two creators to, well, create and bedazzle at will. Makos must keep his discipline in his own half, ensuring that the shuttling runs of Katsouranis and Maniatis are infrequent. The bank of four, and bank of five as we saw versus Russia in defensive transitions will be absolutely crucial given the German attacking talent.

The fullbacks must perform

Schalke 04’s Papadopoulos has been superlative thus far, especially in terms of his aerial ability, but the work of right fullback, Torrosidis (linked with Manchester United recently) should not be overlooked. It was his cross in the first game that led to Salpigidis’ goal, and he also fed the ball through to Karagounis (albeit due to a defensive error) who finished tastily against Russia. He is pacey, energetic and importantly, a good decision maker; he knows when to stick and when to twist, and coming up against record-breaker (and recent Arsenal signing) Podolski, he will have to be at his concentrated best, showing the player down the outside and watching for supporting fullback, captain Phillip Lahm – Torrosidis will pull Salpigids all the way back to the by-line at times.

Tzavellas’ left foot must be as crucial as Ozil’s (!)

Vital to the win versus the Russians, Tzavellas (who replaced the previously hapless Holebas) kept Dzagoev quiet by showing him down the outside at every opportunity, where the creative forward typically has success coming into central positions. Against Germany, Muller will offer a different type of threat, staying high and wide on the right side, causing exceptional danger when making sharp diagonals off the ball into the box. It is essential then that Tzavellas does not only marshal the German, but work in tandem with Papadopoulos (who has been sensational since his introduction when his more senior namesake had to depart due to injury) to forgo Muller, and indeed Ozil who likes to drag defenders out wide in the first instance, the space in which to cause the danger.

At the opposite end of the field, Tzavellas will pose a threat from set pieces, taking over from the suspended Karagounis. Corners and freekicks are his specialty (as Eintracht Frankfurt already know), and as we saw versus the Russians where he hit the post from 30 yards, his dazzling wand of a left foot must be utilised. Santos will be hoping he has a second chance on Friday evening.

(Greece actually have a tradition of producing splendid freekick experts, from Tsiartas to Basinas, but none more so than perhaps the greatest Europe has seen, PAOK legend, Kostas Frantzeskos.)

In summary

Will we see Ninis in the Fabregas role, or will Salpigidis or Gekas spearhead the attack? Can Samaras replicate his form shown in the game versus Russia? Will Greece have vital opportunities from set pieces? Carrying out tactical instruction is no mean feat. If Santos can enable this, he knows that taking the game into extra time, at the very least, is possible. The emphasis on the ‘if’ then, and ensuring a collective unity, communicating throughout, and the team imparting the changes Santos wants to see. Low will not underestimate the tight Greek system, but nonetheless will remain quietly confident that they can get the job done – and with ease if they are able to breach the defence early on in the game.

Referee: Damir Skomina (SLV) – fantastic tournament so far; a commanding performance here could give him the nod for the final, especially since Kassai has been sent home.

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About Sam Drew

17 year old student by day, football blogger by night

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