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Greeks come bearing gifts in Brazil to group opponents

| 17.04.2014

For all their renowned defensive meanness (just six goals conceded in qualifying), Greece have lost all their previous meetings with World Cup Group C opponents Colombia and Japan, while they have never played the Ivory Coast.

Fernando Santos’ side are 200/1 outsiders to go all the way in Brazil, 7/1 shots to top their pool and a 21/10 chance to reach the knockout phase with Coral. They inexplicably achieved the latter feat at their last major tournament, Euro 2012, despite being drawn with the Czech Republic, co-hosts Poland and Russia.

The case for the defence, Greece’s strongest suit, will be put later, but football matches are mainly about results, and they are more often than not achieved by scoring goals. Forgive us stating the obvious, but it seems somebody forgot to tell this team. Winning Euro 2004 looks more like a fluke with every passing international outing.

From the European section, only Croatia netted fewer times than Greece in qualifying and made the finals. As a result of the former nation’s goal drought, their head coach Igor Stimac was sacked.

There is, moreover, a world of difference between the first-choice Croatian and Greek centre forwards. Mario Mandzukic netted the opener in the Champions League final for current club Bayern Munich last term. Kostas Mitroglou, meanwhile, although prolific in his native land with Olympiakos, has barely kicked a ball for Fulham since joining them in January.

Craven Cottage chief Felix Magath may be a stickler for fitness, but the fact that Mitroglou has managed just one Premier League start and half an hour off the bench makes a mockery of where he has come from.

Piraeus (an outer suburb of Greater Athens) outfit Olympiakos’ absolute dominance of the Greek Super League this season is hardly healthy for competition either. They had the title wrapped up by the middle of March, and nearest challengers PAOK, of Thessaloniki, ended the regular season 17 points behind them.

Mitroglou, a 150/1 chance to be World Cup top scorer, finished as the joint-highest Greek in the domestic goal chart, despite playing just half of the campaign in this division. He was also his country’s leading marksman in qualifying (including the play-offs) with a mere five.

To put that in some perspective, Bayern’s Austrian left back David Alaba and two Israeli strikers all netted more, with neither nation coming close to reaching Brazil. For all the travails of Mitroglou, his international record of eight in 29 caps looks accomplished compared to Celtic forward Georgios Samaras.

Former Manchester City flop Samaras has the same number of goals for his country, but has done so in two-and-a-half times as many appearances. From a wide left berth, he has netted on just five occasions during another Scottish Premiership title win.

This calamitous couple are mainstays of Greece’s front three, but Santos simply cannot count on Mitroglou or Samaras, a 200/1 shot to be World Cup top scorer, to get goals for him at the World Cup right now. It is instead to older heads that he must look.

Dimitris Salpingidis (150/1 to be leading marksman), who captains PAOK, got eight during the regular domestic season and three for Greece en route to Brazil and plays for his country down the right flank. Theofanis Gekas (200/1), another 30-something, also chipped in with a couple in qualifying, and is their most prolific frontman that could be on the roster.

Sotiris Ninis, a flop at Parma that is trying to rebuild his club career on loan at PAOK, and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, who has hardly set Serie A alight with Bologna, are the backup options in advanced midfield and wide areas.

Moving away from haranguing the hapless Greek frontline, their engine room has remained the same for a decade now. National skipper Giorgos Karagounis and fellow centurion Kostas Katsouranis are relics from the squad that surprisingly triumphed at Euro 2004.

There comes a point, however, when the value of experience becomes diminished because it hampers progress. Karagounis and Katsouranis have a combined age of 71, so legs may be missing from midfield. Alexandros Tziolis and Giannis Maniatis, yet another Olympiakos player, are steady alternatives, which Santos has sometimes used to mix things up.

And finally, we come to the jewel in the Greek laurel wreath crown – their back five. Central defence is their strongest area, starting with veteran Loukas Vyntra, who is a regular with La Liga side Levante, while Avraam Papadopoulos, captain of Olympiakos, has now won four consecutive domestic titles.

Club teammate Kostas Manolas, meanwhile, helped the champions of Greece keep a clean sheet in their Champions League last 16 first leg victory over Manchester United. Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Borussia Dortmund) has been a fixture in the Bundesliga this term and Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Schalke) is looking his two-year injury nightmare behind him.

Santos’ bravest call in qualifying was dropping PAOK left back Nikos Spyropoulos in favour of Olympiakos counterpart Jose Holebas. The latter is a great outlet going forward, but a defensive liability – a fact underlined by David Moyes’ comeback when the Red Devils won 3-0 at Old Trafford.

Roma right back Vasilis Torosidis has been in and out at the Stadio Olimpico this term, sometimes playing on the other flank, but a regular in his favoured position throughout qualification. His seven international goals from defence make him another outlet.

Maniatis and Giorgos Tzavellas provide cover for the full back berths. Granada goalie Orestis Karnezis looks to have nailed down the Greece number one jersey, but expect Michalis Sifakis, who took that over during Euro 2012, and Alexandros Tzorvas to be the backup options.

Greece face a tough-looking opener in Brazil against Colombia on June 14th. Their best hope is to pray that predatory opposing forward Radamel Falcao fails to fully recover from a serious knee injury. Should he struggle or fail to make the World Cup fit, however, odds of 5/1 on a Greek upset are certainly tempting.

A 30-man squad has been announced by Greece ahead of the finals:

Goalkeepers: Alexandros Tzorvas (Apollon Smyrnis), Michalis Sifakis (Atromitos), Orestis Karnezis (Granada), Panaglotis Glykos (PAOK), Stefanos Kapino (Panathinaikos).

Defenders: Avraam Papadopoulos, Dimitris Siovas, Kostas Manolas, Giannis Maniatis, Jose Holebas (all Olympiakos), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (Borussia Dortmund), Giorgios Tzavellas (PAOK), Loukas Vyntra (Levante), Vasilis Torosidis (Roma).

Midfielders: Alexandros Tziolis (Kayserispor), Andreas Samaris (Olympiakos), Kostas Katsouranis (PAOK), Giorgos Karagounis (Fulham), Panagiotis Tachtsidis (Torino), Sotiris Ninis (PAOK), Ioannis Fetfatzidis (Genoa), Kostas Fortounis (Kaiserslautern), Lazaros Christodoulopoulos (Bologna) Panagiotis Kone (Bologna).

Forwards: Dimitris Papadopoulos (Atromitos), Dimitris Salpingidis (PAOK), Giorgios Samaras (Celtic), Kostas Mitroglou (Fulham), Theofanis Gekas (Konyaspor).



Jamie Clark

Athletics aficionado, die-hard snooker fan and Crystal Palace supporter Jamie has written for Coral since February 2014 after spells with Soccerlens and the Press Association as a digital journalist and copywriter. A former East Midlands sports correspondent and Bwin tipster, he is a graduate of both the University of York and University of Sheffield, with a Masters in web journalism from the latter.