How They Got Here
Greece find themselves among great company in being one of the five sides to come through qualification unbeaten. Tournament favourites Germany and Spain managed it as well as England and Italy, but even with a European Championship victory under their belt from 2004, the Greeks wouldn’t be so brash as to claim that they were of the same level.
Nevertheless, seven wins and three draws from their ten games is a phenomenal achievement in a group that was littered with tough trips and strong opponents, particularly Slaven Bilic’s Croatia who couldn’t even score against Fernando Santos’ side.
Why They’ll Win
Considering all of the other sides that qualified undefeated are among the favourites, why shouldn’t Greece be? Their campaign that has got them this far is that of a dark horse, and although they’ll surely be subject to the misinformed clichés that were formed with their 2004 victory in mind, anyone who has seen the football that they have produced under Santos will know that they are an entirely different outfit.
Greece boast a nigh-on perfect blend of experience and youth, as well as some much underrated depth from the substitutes bench that proved so decisive in the qualifiers. They are also absolutely brimming with confidence following a streak of seventeen games without defeat since Santos took over, and while this was broken with a friendly defeat to Romania, it was a weakened side and won’t affect the mentality of the Greeks going into this competition.
While it won’t have gone unnoticed around Europe that Greece may be a country in social and economic turmoil, this is not necessarily a bad thing for the football team. What better than strife and anger to unite and galvanise a team? Italy won the World Cup on the back of the Calciopoli scandal in 2006 and in the face of far bigger issues, don’t rule out Hellas.
Why They Won’t Win
While this is a side of more technical quality than Otto Rehhagel’s class of 2004, that was a team that acknowledged their limited ability and adjusted their tactics to nullify their opponents. Needless to say it was a success, as they ran out winners, but it was a reactionary brand of football and one without too many hallmarks of their own, barring perhaps a directness of play and a ruthlessness at set pieces.
Fernando Santos has given them an identity, and he merges his strong understanding of Greek football – which comes from managing three of Greece’s top four clubs – with his Iberian heritage, to exhibit a strong brand of football. This 4-3-3/4-5-1 served them well in the qualifying but up against the top quality sides you sometimes need to shut up shop and take any chances you can get, and this new system could leave them far too open, while question marks remain over Gekas and Samaras’ goal-scoring ability.
Most of all though, it could come down to Chalky the clown: Kostas Chalkias was a heavily-criticised inclusion given that he is 38 and very error-prone but there are few alternatives. The other goalkeepers called up are Michalis Sifakis, who has played just twice this season after a six-month injury layoff, and Palermo’s second-choice keeper Alexandros Tsorvas.
No side has ever won a competition with someone rubbish between the sticks, but Santos has indicated that the ex-Portsmouth custodian will be his first choice. Oo-er.
We’ve Seen Before
Only three players make this squad that were part of the 2004 success, with the aforementioned Chalkias (who didn’t make an appearance in that competition) joined by Kostas Katsouranis and Giorgios Karagounis.
The latter was an Inter Milan player at the time, although he has since returned to Panathinaikos (via Benfica). He spent most of that tournament in Portugal been shuffled around between wide and central positions, dependent on the whim of the master tactician Rehhagel, and memorably scored the competition’s opening goal, a bobbling low drive from outside the penalty area in a 2-1 win.
Now in his third decade of playing for the national team, he is second in the all-time appearances list, just five behind Theodoris Zagorakis – the 2004 captain. Karagounis played a central role in his country’s qualification for the tournament but come June in Poland (and possibly Ukraine) he is likely to be a substitute.
Giorgios Fotakis has seemingly taken over his role in midfield, but Santos has intimated that Karagounis will look to exploit his experience from the bench, so even without him starting, we can expect to see a lot from one of Greece’s all-time greats.
Make no mistake, Sotiris Ninis is the real deal. He is not the only talented young player in this squad, far from it, but his potential deserves the stage upon which he will perform this summer. While Papastathopoulos, Fetfatzidis and Papadopoulos will no doubt end up at some of Europe’s top clubs (with the latter joining Ninis on the IBWM 100 list) – Ninis at 22 years of age is coming to the point where people expect him to perform.
This season has been a virtual wipeout for him, missing six months through serious injury, but having played just over 400 minutes at club level will leave him fresh for this summer’s continental showpiece. While his intelligence, technique and range of passing means that his most influential position tends to be centrally and high up the pitch, he is likely to be used wide right of the Greek attacking trident.
If he can recreate performances like the one at the Olimpico stadium versus Roma, then Greece are capable of achieving anything. For the first goal, he won a penalty off Daniele De Rossi, the second saw him pirouette away from Philippe Mexes before rifling home from distance and for the third goal, he threaded a delightful forty yard through ball for Djibril Cissé to score. There is no doubt that on his day he can perform against the highest class of opposition, and with potentially Germany or Holland to play in a quarter-final, he’ll need to.
How They’ll Play
It has already been touched upon, but Otto Rehhagel’s direct football of the mid noughties is history. In its place is Fernando Santos’ Ibero-Grecian hybrid, a 4-3-3 side that is far more creative than its predecessor yet maintains some of their best qualities – particularly their strength at set pieces.
The midfield will be composed of two more defensive players – most probably Katsouranis and Maniatis – with another just in front who will be expected to provide most of the creativity. Sotiris Ninis would have been an exciting choice for this role, but Santos has indicated that he will play instead as part of the front three, therefore we expect to see Fotakis start the competition in this role, with the experience of Karagounis or dynamic youth of Fetfatzidis as options from the bench.
Up top, Ninis will most likely take over from Salpingidis on the right hand side. During his long-term injury layoff, the young midfielder was replaced by his Panathinaikos teammate for the crucial last few qualifiers, but having played so many games this year due to Ninis’ absence, Salpingidis may now miss out, fatigued from over forty appearances. Centrally, Theofanis Gekas is expected to start, bringing with him a decent Bundesliga record, and loping forward Giorgios Samaras will slot in on the left to provide plenty of aerial threat.
The Greeks main two strategies going forward will be trying to build play patiently through the centre and right, or diagonal balls for Samaras that will take advantage of the competition’s shorter full-backs. Ninis will be afforded some freedom to drift centrally, allowing Torosidis to overlap, and in poacher Gekas and the lanky Samaras, they have a perfect near-post/back-post combination for when the crosses do arrive.
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Ed is a freelance football journalist that regularly delivers bang on the money thoughts and opion via twitter @eaamalyon