Friday 17 November 2017

Greece hope lightning can strike twice

Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE words should resonate with Irish ears. When a team is stereotyped, the platitudes are the same.

As the German camp spoke of Greek qualities yesterday, they used sentences that were eerily similar to the pre-match sound bites of Ireland's Euro 2012 opponents.

"They play with passion," said goalkeeper Manuel Neuer. "They are aggressive, they are defensively very good and they target their strikers with long balls. And, on set-pieces, they can be very dangerous.

"They will fight hard and we will not underestimate them," added manager Joachim Loew, conscious that his men are expected to stroll through tonight's IMF-themed quarter-final.

But he couldn't have been talking about Ireland as that sentence continued. "You can write them off, but they are always there," he stressed, "They are like survival artists. Suddenly, they're in the quarter-finals again. Just like 2004. They always come back."

Defeats

Inevitably, monetary gags have been the order of the day in the build-up to this unlikely fixture, especially as we are presented with a rare, recent example of the Greeks securing value for money.

While Ireland's €1.2m-a-year manager sits at home in Italy after three resounding defeats, the Greeks have reached the knockout stages with a gaffer, Portuguese native Fernando Santos, who earns half that amount. And that is only after receiving a 45pc pay increase before the competition that caused consternation in his financially stricken homeland.

He has already recouped the cost for his employers by leading the nation to this juncture and lifting spirits at home. They were on the streets for a positive reason last weekend.

By qualifying for this tournament ahead of Croatia, and then shocking Russia once they made it here, the Greeks have demonstrated an ability to punch above their weight in a manner that Ireland cannot.

A cursory glance through their squad would suggest that Santos is a more capable supremo when it comes to managing his options. Admittedly, he possesses defensive quality that Trapattoni would envy. Centre-halves Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kyriakos Papadopoulos are valuable commodities; the latter is a name you will be trying to spell on many occasions in the future, while the careers of his full-backs are on an upward curve.

But further up the pitch they rely on 32-year-old Turkish-based striker Theofanis Gekas, who came out of international retirement to figure in this campaign, and the unpredictable Georgios Samaras, who scored a third of what Anthony Stokes contributed to the Celtic cause last season. Stokes is so far down the list of Irish strikers that his chances of figuring in the upcoming World Cup campaign are remote at best.

The manner in which Santos has deployed Samaras is relevant to the wider argument. It's all about tactical flexibility. The Greeks may defend in numbers, but they're not a one-trick pony. They withstood a siege against Russia, but Santos adopted formation mid-game to cope with it. Samaras ploughed a lone furrow, with his manager bringing in an extra midfielder.

Indeed, the utilisation of his 23-man squad has contributed to their success. Already, he's fielded 18 different players, a sign of trust in his back-up options, regardless of their age; a contrast from Trapattoni's reluctance to deploy James McClean or Darron Gibson.

Teenager Kostas Fortounis, who has limited Bundesliga experience, has figured in two games, despite his youth, and could be involved this evening with the inspirational veteran Giorgos Karagounis suspended. Papadopoulos is just 20 and has thrived in this arena. There has an absence of fear and tension from both players and management.

Trapattoni talks about the Greek achievements in 2004 a lot. He also hammed up Chelsea's fortunate Champions League final success as inspiration for his Irish players. When a German voice asked Loew about that example, he batted it away.

"Well, that's a bit far fetched," he replied. "Chelsea play in a different league, and a different style of football, than what you saw in that competition. But the Greeks? They've played in this style, for many, many years. They play for counter attack. That's how they damage their opponents."

A feisty atmosphere is anticipated tonight. The desperation of the economic situation means that a reduced number of Greeks have made the journey -- their media presence is also depleted -- but there will be enough to make some noise if Angela Merkel appears on the big screen.

In Athens, it has been reported that the Greek Tourism Bureau has contacted all the major TV networks to request that the crowd volume is turned down during the German anthem, in case there are jeers from the opposition supporters present.

The German team have embraced Merkel, enthusiastically greeting the news of her imminent arrival at a press conference on Wednesday, a gathering which was so relaxed that it concluded with midfielder Thomas Muller giving a cooking demonstration for the audience. (Salmon risotto, in case you were interested).

Greece are determined to ensure that Germany's exhibitioning for the week stopped there and their success rate should be of interest to an Irish audience.

Remember, come October, this young, vibrant German team will rock into Dublin for a World Cup qualifier, a game where Trap will have to devise a more coherent plan to deal with a superior opponent.

Santos drew on another of Trap's favourite parables as he assessed the immediate challenge facing his side. "We can view it as David and Goliath. And I'm willing to accept the role of David as long as history repeats itself."

They are ready to fight, but there will be a method to the application.All the odds suggest their Euros adventure will end tonight, but, whatever happens, they have once more delivered a lesson on how to prevail with limited resources. It can't be a fluke if it keeps happening.

Germany v Greece,

Live, RTE 2, ITV 1, 7.45

Irish Independent

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