Santos aiming to continue his knack of making the most of his limited assets
Having qualified for the finals unbeaten, the astute manager’s Greek side are still punching above their weight, writes EMMET MALONE,Soccer Correspondent in Warsaw
“GET TO the knockout stages and then anything can happen,” is the mantra of the minnows at any major tournament but the Greeks have far more reason than most to appreciate the truth at the heart of it. Still, it would be quite something of they can prove it again by emerging victorious from a slightly daunting quarter-final encounter with three-times European champions Germany in Gdansk tonight.
The game will be played under the shadow of a still unfolding political and economic drama in which both nations have assumed starring roles and the Greeks have made no secret of their desire to lift the spirits of the people back home by doing well again at these championships. In the absence of the Turks, it is hard to imagine anything more likely to send them skyrocketing for a day or two than an upset this evening.
A little like some of Ireland’s games over the last couple of weeks, this one looks, on paper, like a bit of a mismatch. Joachim Loew draws on an array of the game’s most powerful clubs when assembling a squad that many back at home believe is capable of lifting a major title again, while his opposite number’s players are mainly based at home, with just a handful playing abroad, mainly with slightly second tier Bundesliga outfits.
But Fernando Santos has shown something of a gift for making the most of the talent at his disposal in the years since he succeeded Otto Rehhagel as manager. Having qualified without losing a game – they took four points from group favourites Croatia, obliging Slaven Bilic’s side to make it here via the play-offs – the Portuguese and his players have particularly impressed with the way they rescued a situation that looked distinctly unpromising when defeat by the Czech left them with just one point from their two opening games.
Santos could perhaps teach Giovanni Trapattoni a thing or two when it comes to having faith in your players and a willingness to reassess the functioning of an established system. The former Porto boss, who has spent most of the past decade coaching in Greece with AEK, Panathinaikos and PAOK, has made changes for every game – only four of the 23 man squad have yet to kick a ball here – with only seven of the side that drew against Poland lining out at the start of the must- win encounter with Russia.
Originally an adherent of 4-4-2, he has preferred 4-3-3 since taking over from Rehhagel, a job he seems to have been given in the wake of the team’s poor Euro 2008 on the basis of his capacity for steadying ships rather than the more notable successes he had previously achieved. But he changed things again for the encounter with Dick Advocaat’s men, opting for a 4-2-3-1 formation that helped the Greeks to contain a fancied Russian attack and then hit their opponents swiftly on the break.
Fanis Gekas suddenly found himself playing up front with a little less support but the goal they needed came just before half-time courtesy of 35-year-old skipper Georgias Karagounis, one of the heroes of 2004. Though there was a touch of the Irish in Moscow about it all in the second half, they held on to their lead and progressed with four points on the basis of the head to head.
Crucial to their success is the fact that they do not defend as deeply as Ireland did in their games and they are significantly better at retaining the ball when they get it. The greatest single factor in their success, though, is the rate at which they take their chances. Despite Santos’s insistence he has sought to play more adventurously than his predecessor, they still create few chances and almost never score more than one in a match of late.
Their ratio of opportunities to goals is better than that of their opponents this evening and Loew made a point at his press conference last night of praising their “dynamism in attack” as well as their strength at the back.
The Germans, of course, have bucketloads of both and there gave been some surprisingly reckless suggestions from at home that there should be changes this evening in order to give fringe players a chance to shine.
Santos, who has already put media criticism of his own side to good use on the motivational front, would love that. If his side did somehow win, though, the celebrating would scarcely be confined to the fans back home.