Wednesday 20 September 2017

David Kelly: Greek triumph of organisation and heart sums up Irish failings

Greece players celebrate their victory against Russia which secured an unlikely quarter-final place
Greece players celebrate their victory against Russia which secured an unlikely quarter-final place

Two weeks ago, a squad of players seemingly short on class but long on spirit decamped to the southern Baltic seaside resort of Sopot in northern Poland.

Traipsing in their wake were thousands of cheerleaders, offering unconditional support for a group of honest professionals in whom their faith was predicated upon that honesty supplanting their limitations.

That squad was Irish.

Tomorrow, via Poznan, Gdansk and back again, they will return home prematurely; until now, hopelessly unable to compensate for their obvious weaknesses, while handicapped by fear, conservatism and the stubbornness of an unyielding coach.

In truth, so runs the predominant theme amongst the multitude, Ireland had little reason to be here at all, other than to once more announce their supporters as the best in the world, or to fleetingly discard the grim financial realities of the country's financial collapse.

That is not necessarily the case.

A trip to Sopot yesterday would have provided a stirring reminder of why this is so.

On Saturday night, another squad of players found their coach pitching up in the same seaside resort, long since denuded of the thousands of green-shirted fans who had transformed this hideaway for continental Europe's elite into an open-air brewery which was more like Courtown beach in mid-July.

The Greeks, a squad not entirely unfamiliar with economic carnage, criticisms of their style and uncertainties as to their suitability for life at Europe's biggest football party overcame all those potentially enervating inadequacies to somehow qualify for the quarter-finals.

The Greeks -- who are ranked just three places ahead of Ireland in FIFA's official world rankings at 15th -- demonstrate that all is possible.

Ireland, sadly, held no pretence to demonstrate anything is possible.

To qualify for these championships, they defeated Ireland's nemesis Croatia to avoid the play-offs; while here, they overcame another Irish nemesis to celebrate an unlikely qualification for the last eight.

On Saturday morning, Russia lay at the summit of Group A; later that evening they were out, undone by a smash and grab effort at the hand of the Greeks, sustained in the very style to which Giovanni Trapattoni had become so familiarly accustomed.

There were 19 chances during the first-half in Warsaw; Russia had 17 of them but book-ending their dominance were two Greek efforts, the latter providing the game's only goal just before half-time.

Possession

Greece full-backs, Vasilis Torosidis and Georgios Tzavelas, were first and third in terms of Greek players with the most possession; they used twice as many long passes as the Russians.

In all, Russia had 31 attempts on goal, albeit only two of which were directly on target; the 12 blocks broke a record in these championships stretching back to the 2004 event.

As an exercise in defiance against austerity, this was its sporting equivalent.

It mirrored all the characteristics of an Irish team that, until this championships at least, had made a virtue of defensive solidity, who had valued destruction over creation.

Despite the defensive approach ridiculed by Russian coach Dick Advocaat, whose side clearly hadn't learned anything from the "Moscow Miracle", Greece had a semblance of a strategy, whereas Ireland have had none this past fortnight.

They clearly planned to attack the defensive weaknesses of Russia's wide men, while exploiting the space in behind the full-backs by pressing at certain moments.

Still, everything started on a solid case for the defence.

And, unlike Ireland's confusing approach to their forward options, set-piece strategies were deployed with obvious target-men, not redundant small players unable, or unwilling, to hold up the ball.

Greek's Portuguese born coach, Fernando Santos, delineated the clear qualities present in his side's success.

They were also the qualities absent from Ireland's shock submission.

"Concentration," he said. "Essentially, the main change was in terms of concentration. We've talked about it several times before. This time we were able to stay focused. We know that the key to our team is being very focused.

"Performing with the discipline that the players showed throughout the match, with high concentration, they followed our strategy. And I think that was what really changed.

"We were not caught off-guard like in the previous two matches, which cost us points and could have cost us qualification to the next round."

Trapattoni had name-checked Greece, 2004 European champions, in his first ever press conference as Irish manager four years ago.

Sadly, Ireland couldn't even aspire to be themselves in this tournament.

With Greece now to meet Germany, a Greek journalist joked that perhaps Chancellor Angela Merkel will outline just how wide the margin of victory should be in a putative quarter-final.

While Ireland have occasionally bleated about refereeing decisions that masked wider deficiencies still not wholly and honestly addressed by the squad, Greece have also performed with a sense that, as in their economic situation, Europe wants them to fail.

"Our team could have had seven points," lamented Karagounis, whose record 120th cap was a bittersweet moment as his goal was followed by a yellow card for diving when he clearly should have been awarded a penalty.

As a consequence, he will miss the quarter-final.

"Two goals were disallowed, other decisions were unfair and today we should have had a penalty and yet instead I got given a yellow card for diving and I will miss the next game.

"I am not sure, maybe UEFA has to watch the video one more time, because it is really a pity, on the one hand for me not to be able to play in the next match and on the other to have many unfair decisions."

Complaining after victory, rather than defeat, is at least tolerable.

Unlike Ireland, at least they have a future in this competition.

At their opening press conference, the man from a British tabloid queried what the Greeks were going to do to lift a nation downtrodden by financial implosion.

Karagounis intervened sharply to kick such intangibles to one side.

"Excuse me, feeling sorry about what? About football or for the difficult situation of the country?

"Well, we are here to do our best, to participate in a European championship once more and to make Greece happy, since they need it a lot at the moment. That's what we want and we don't care what other people say."

On Saturday night, Karagounis took up the theme again while back home, Athens' Omonia Square reverberated joyously to a cacophony of firecrackers and car horns.

"We have nothing to prove to English journalists or anybody else," he said. "Greece has got a great history. We won the match thanks to our determination.

"After the game against Czech Republic, we got on the plane to come back to Warsaw and we heard about the result of the match between Russia and Poland, we all said now it is our big chance.

"We knew that we had to face a great team, because Russia is a great team, but we were really determined to win and we had passion.

"We showed our spirit on the pitch and we proved once again that our team has got character."

For now, the Greek model, in soccer, is one Ireland can only spy on with an envious glance.

"Now we must keep our feet on the ground," says Santos, "and assess things because, just as we weren't the worst team in the world a few days ago, nor are we world-beaters today.

"We are still the same, true to ourselves. And we'll try to perform well in every match."

Irish Independent

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