Euro 2012 Preview: Greece
Greece went 24 years from its first qualification before its next appearance in the final stages of the European Championship but, since its shock victory in Portugal in 2004, it has been ever-present in the finals. Otto Rehhagel, the coach who oversaw that triumph, finally left in 2010 to be replaced by the Portuguese manager Fernando Santos, named Greek coach of the last decade for his work with Panathinaikos, AEK and PAOK. But the method hasn't much changed.
Greece remains a solid, unspectacular side that gets results by attrition, something clearly seen in the 2-0 home victory over Croatia in qualification that effectively secured the top spot in the group. It was a desperate game was eventually settled by two goals from set plays in the final 20 minutes.
It may not be pretty, but it is effective, and Santos went 17 games without a loss before a 3-1 home defeat to Romania in a November friendly. The worry for Greece is that that defeat now stands as part of a four-game run without a win, and it says much about Santos' approach that nine of his 20 games in charge have ended in draws.
The 32-year-old Samsunspor forward is the man charged with being the equivalent of Angelos Charisteas in 2004. He must lead the line, often as a lone forward, and try to conjure the set plays that will represent Greece's best chance of scoring goals. He can be prolific himself -- he was top scorer in the European section of qualifying for the '10 World Cup and managed eight in 11 games in the Turkish league last season.But he is aging, and his doubts about his own continued ability at the highest level were reflected in his decision to retire from international football in '10, only to return a year later.
Karagounis was there at the beginning, scoring the opening goal of Euro 2004, when Greece stunned Portugal. And he is still there now, captaining the side at the age of 35. He is the second-most capped player in Greek history and remains both a dogged worker in midfield and a deliverer of fine set plays -- his most memorable free kicks probably being the two he scored against Portugal in a friendly in Germany in '08. He never really settled at either Inter Milan or Benfica, and in '07 he returned to Greece, where he has played over 250 games in his two spells with Panathinaikos.
Another veteran of the Euro 2004 win, Katsouranis is likely to be the defensive pivot of Greece's midfield three. Santos opted not to sign him when he was Panathinaikos manager in '02, leading to Katsouranis' move to AEK. He played over 100 league games for them before moving to Benfica, returning to Greece with Panathinaikos in '09. At 32, he has retained his pace, and nine goals in 90 international games speak to a reasonable goal threat despite being notionally a defensive midfielder. He was Greek Footballer of the Year in '05.
Known as the Greek Messi, Fetfatzidis adds a dash of sparkle to an otherwise prosaic squad. The 21-year-old Olympiakos forward prefers to start wide on the right and cut in toward his strong left foot and, like the Argentine, was given growth hormone treatment by his club after joining them as a 13-year-old. In terms of ability, comparisons with Messi seem premature -- as he himself laughingly acknowledges -- but he could be a key figure coming off the bench to turn tight games on late. He is, in a sense, exactly the player, or at least the sort of player, Greece has been missing.
Michalis Sifakis of Aris was the clear first choice during the qualifying series, but he has played only twice for his club since September because of injuries. Sifakis was named to Greece's squad, but it's far from clear just how fit he is. PAOK's Kostas Chalkias was a surprise call-up over Dionisis Chiotis as backup. He was the reserve goalkeeper at Euro 2004 but had seemed to have faded from the picture; he did, though, play in a 1-1 friendly draw with Slovenia on May 26. The third keeper is Alexandros Tzorvas, who was Rehhagel's preferred option during the World Cup campaign, but he is only a reserve at Palermo and played just three of the Euro qualifiers.
Crisis often leads to togetherness, putting the trivial disputes that can undermine team spirit into perspective. "Some players have an uncertain future," said Karagounis when asked about the debt crisis and Greece's potential exit from the Euro. "There are many problems in football and in the country and we all live them. We must commit ourselves to the team and its goals. It will be an extra motivation for us to give joy to our compatriots during the tournament, to help them forget the problems of everyday life for a short time at least."
Santos has shown a tendency through his career to favor a 4-4-2, but, recognizing the success Greece has had in a 4-3-3, he has opted to leave it well alone. Fourteen goals scored and five conceded in 10 qualifiers says much about Greece's strengths, although Santos probably is more attacking than Rehhagel. Certainly both fullbacks, Vasilis Torosidis and Jose Holebas, can get forward if required. Still, the emphasis is on organization, and the first XI looks a side rooted in discipline and organization. That mindset is perhaps clearest in the front three. Gekas will lead the line, with Georgos Samaras and Dimitris Salpigidis outside him.
Neither are natural wingers and were seemingly selected as much for their ability to shuttle back to midfield and block off the opposing fullback as anything else. Samaras offers an aerial threat coming in at the back post -- and at the set plays vital to Greece's style -- while Salpigidis is very quick and so a useful tool on the counter attack.