Opening acts anxious not to fluff their lines

Fri, Jun 8, 2012, 01:00

GROUP A POLAND v GREECE:FOOTBALL FANS will hardly need reminding that the last time Greece featured in the opening game of the European Championship finals in 2004, they failed to follow the script, defeating much fancied host nation Portugal.

More remarkably still that opening match was replicated when the two sides met again in the Lisbon final, with Greece again beating Portugal to run out one of the most surprising major tournament winners of modern times.

In Warsaw this evening the Greeks get a chance to stage a repeat act when again they find themselves opening the European Championships against the host nation, this time Poland. However, it says much about the quality of both sides that bookmakers were yesterday offering odds of 700 to 1 against the possibility that both teams will meet again in the final in Kiev on July 1st.

These two sides may be some way back on the starting grid for Euro 2012 but, nonetheless, this is a game that, for different reasons, will be heavily charged with patriotic fervour for both teams. For the host nation, this is quite simply their biggest moment in the international limelight since the collapse of communism in Poland in 1989.

For them, and indeed for tournament organisers Uefa, it is imperative that they put their best foot forward, generating that major spark of home team enthusiasm that could set the finals alight.

For opponents Greece, however, in the words of their Portuguese coach Fernando Santos, the game offers “a chance to bring some joy to a people who have not had much joy in recent times”.

Even though they have only lost once in their last 12 games (to Italy in a friendly last November), Poland come into these finals with a Fifa ranking of 62, making them the lowest-ranking side in the tournament.

In the last two years, when Franciszek Smuda’s side has come up against a really top-class team, it has tended to crumble – as witnessed by a 6-0 defeat to Spain just before the South African World Cup finals.

Those of us old enough to recall Polish sides inspired by such as Denya and Lubanski in the 1970s and then by Boniek and Lato in the 1980s would argue that the current team is a long way short of that exhilarating standard.

Built around players such as Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and the Borussia Dortmund trio of defender Lukasz Piszczek, midfielder Jakub Blaszczykowski and striker Robert Lewandowski, this side may prove to be very cautious if not to say defensive – partly because there is a perceived weakness at the centre of their defence, and all the more so because of home fan expectations and the desire to keep their campaign alive for as long as possible.

Irish fans will be watching Greece closely, however, because this is the team which in qualifying took four points from Ireland’s opening game opponents on Sunday, namely Croatia, beating them at home and drawing away to top Group F, two points clear of Croatia.

With such as Greece’s most capped player, Giorgos Karagounis, in midfield, Werder Bremen’s Sokratis Papastathopoulos in defence and Glasgow Celtic striker Georgios Samaras in attack this will almost certainly be a cagey Greece.

A tense affair, short on pyrotechnics, could be the order of the night.