The Road to Russia 2018 Begins...

- The Road to Russia 2018 Begins... -
 

As Greece begin another qualifying campaign, the desire is to leave behind the train wreck that was the team’s EURO 2016 qualifying performance. Losing to the Faroe Islands twice is pretty much all that needs to be said. The majority of Greek fans could not believe this was the same team that came within a whisker of the 2014 FIFA World Cup quarterfinals. The hope of all those supporting the Ethniki is that  this was all merely a blip, a very bad blip, but a blip all the same in terms of the national team’s path moving forward.

Current head coach Michael Skibbe insists Greece have what it takes to make it to Russia in less than two years’ time. Undoubtedly, Greece will have to battle hard to overcome the likes of Belgium and Bosnia and to a lesser extent Cyprus, Estonia and finally Gibraltar. 

A serious and committed Galanolefki side could do well in this group. However, Greece will have to show all the unity and commitment they lacked as they flopped in the EURO qualifiers. The chance to qualify for the World Cup for the third successive time must be a real driving force for this current group of players as they look to shake off the embarrassment and pain of the last two years.

AGONAsport.com takes a closer look at Greece’s Group H opponents in their 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers. For standings, schedules, and the format of qualifying visit Greece's World Cup Qualifying homepage here.


Belgium (fifa rank: 2nd)

Undoubtedly, the top-seeded team in Group H will be Greece’s toughest rivals for first place and a direct ticket to the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Belgium are a side with some of world football’s greatest individual talents and a fair few have coined this as Belgian football’s golden generation. The Red Devils come into qualifying as clear favorites; however they too are a team in transition. After an ultimately disappointing EURO 2016 exit in the quarterfinals, Marc Wilmots was given the sack and the surprising choice as his successor was Roberto Martinez.

Questions abound about his appointment. Martinez’s teams are not renowned for their defensive stability or consistency. The fear of critics is that for a team needing both of those traits and a way to meld the superb individual parts into a strong unit perhaps a different sort of manager was required.

The fact remains that Belgium has world-class quality throughout their squad. They will expect to breeze through this group and make a real impact in Russia.

World Cup History: Belgium have made twelve World Cup appearances. Their 4th place finish at the 1986 World Cup remains their best-ever achievement. At the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, Belgium advanced to the quarter-finals going out to Argentina 1-0.

Euro 2016: In Belgium’s latest tournament appearance they flattered to deceive going out of EURO 2016 in the quarter-finals to Wales 3-1. They had qualified for the tournament by topping their qualifying group.

The Boss: Roberto Martinez was appointed in August and will dive right into World Cup qualifying with his side. He was considered one of football’s brightest young managers when he took over Everton in 2013. While his first season was superb, the following two campaigns were marked by inconsistency, ultimately leading to his sacking this past May. Before Everton he suffered relegation with Wigan in the same season that he led them to an against-the-odds FA Cup success.

Key Players: Where to start with a country over-flowing with talented young stars. If on form, Eden Hazard is one of world football’s best. The Chelsea man is able to unlock defenses with his dribbling, movement, and finishing. Hazard also will look to tee up main striker Romelu Lukaku. The 23-year-old is a force with his power and pace. Kevin De Bruyne is a creative and versatile attacker, while there is also quality at the back with the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, if the Manchester City center-back can regain fitness. In goal, Thibaut Courtois is considered one of the top ‘keepers in the game. 

vs. Greece: Where to start with a country over-flowing with talented young stars. If on form, Eden Hazard is one of world football’s best. The Chelsea man is able to unlock defenses with his dribbling, movement, and finishing. Hazard also will look to tee up main striker Romelu Lukaku. The 23-year-old is a force with his power and pace. Kevin De Bruyne is a creative and versatile attacker, while there is also quality at the back with the likes of Jan Vertonghen and Vincent Kompany, if the Manchester City center-back can regain fitness. In goal, Thibaut Courtois is considered one of the top ‘keepers in the game. 

Outlook: It’s hard to see how Belgium will not top this section. There is enough class in their player pool for two decent national teams. At the same time, they will have questions to answer coming into qualifying. The defeat to Wales at the Euros left a bitter taste in the mouth of their supporters and the commitment and toughness of this current crop of players was severely questioned. Can Martinez help them find the resolve needed to transform the obvious talent into success? Time will tell, but the smart money is on them to finish first in Group H.


bosnia & herzegovina (fifa rank: 29th)

Bosnia.jpg

Bosnia enter World Cup qualifying after a rocky EURO 2016 qualifying campaign. A poor start saw a change in managers and only toward the end did they rediscover the form that saw them qualify for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. While not at the level of Belgium’s individual talent, Bosnia are still a team possessing some top players.

Their recent form as stated has been good since the arrival of coach Mehmed Bazdarevic. They are coming off of winning their first international title in June, the 2016 Kirin Cup. While not a major competition, the victory in the annual Japan-hosted tournament was further proof that this is a team to be reckoned with during the upcoming qualifiers.

World Cup History: Bosnia’s lone World Cup appearance came in Brazil during the 2014 FIFA World Cup. They managed a third-place finish in Group F behind Argentina and Nigeria. They did manage to record their first win in the World Cup though by defeating Iran 3-1 in their final group game. 

Euro 2016: In their qualifying cycle, Bosnia finished third in Group B of EURO 2016 qualifying. This earned them a place in the play-offs where they ultimately were eliminated by Ireland 3-1 on aggregate.

The Boss: Mehmed Bazdarevic is considered one of Bosnia’s greatest footballers. His coaching career has taken him to Tunisia, Qatar, and most notably France where he has coached the likes of Istres, Grenoble, and Sochaux. He was voted as the Ligue 2 Manager of the Year in 2008 after leading Istres to Ligue 1, a feat he repeated three years later with Grenoble. His appointment at the end of 2014 for Bosnia has seen an upturn in their form.

Key Players: Edin Dzeko remains the main man for goals in this squad.  Miralem Pjanic recently moved to Juventus and is considered one of Serie A’s best midfielders. Vedad Ibisevic is a proven goalscorer for club and country, while veteran Emir Spahic ties things together at the back. One player to watch is Milan Duric. The Cesena striker may not play for a big club team, but he does have a fine strike rate for his country with seven goals in ten matches.

vs. Greece: Greece have faced Bosnia on seven occasions having beaten them four times and drawing twice. The Bosnians’ lone victory was in the two teams’ last encounter which was a 3-1 victory in Bosnia during the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers in March 2013. The two teams meet again in their second consecutive World Cup Qualifying campaign, with Bosnia topping the group ahead of Greece on goal differential, in 2014 Qualifying.

Outlook: With Belgium the clear favorite to win Group H, it seems likely Greece will be fighting it out with Bosnia for second place (leads to a playoff spot). Bazdarevic has a side with a good mix of youth and experience along with a sprinkle of some fine players plying their trade in the big European leagues. For now, it certainly seems as though the Bosnians are most observers’ picks to claim second in the group.


cyprus (fifa rank: 86th)

Greece will also have to contend with their brotherly neighbors in Group H with respect to Cyprus. While the Cypriot national team have shown improvement in recent years they have never been quite able to make enough of an impact to qualify for a major international tournament.

Christakis Christoforou’s reign has seen the team continue their history of battling displays as Cyprus remain a tricky opponent for the bigger countries. During EURO 2016 qualifying they came incredibly close to garnering a spot in the play-offs only to lose their deciding match at home to Bosnia 3-2.

The strength in the Cypriot team is surely in the collective, with a spirit that has allowed them to claim some big results in the last few years (qualifying victories over Bosnia and Israel, draws against Serbia and Switzerland). Perhaps one missing ingredient is the absence of belief as they have not yet managed to make the final step in qualifying for a major competition.

World Cup History: Cyprus have never qualified for the FIFA World Cup.

Euro 2016: For a period of time against Bosnia in their final qualifier, Cyprus led 2-1 and had a hold of third place in Group B as Belgium were simultaneously beating Israel. The Cypriots could not hold on however as they succumbed 3-2 on the night and ultimately finished fourth in the group with twelve points from ten matches.

The Boss: Christakis Christoforou was selected as Cypriot national team coach last December. He previously coached two domestic sides in Apollon and AEL Limmasol, winning one Cypriot Cup with the latter. The 51-year-old was a former professional player who spent his entire career in Cyprus and was also a member of the national team. 

Key Players: APOEL star Georgios Efrem is a key player for the national team with his wing play. Efrem is coming off a fine club campaign last season which saw him selected as the best player of the Cypriot top-flight. At the age of 35, captain Constantinos Charalambides is still going strong for club and country. Two young players are also worth keeping an eye on. Grigoris Kastanos is an 18-year-old midfielder with two caps who just signed for Juventus, while Walsall’s 20-year-old Andreas Makris is a promising striker. 

vs. Greece: Greece and Cyprus have played each other 25 times with Greece having won on sixteen occasions. Cyprus have only been victorious three times with seven matches ended in draws. The last meeting between the two was in May 2008 as Greece won at home 2-0 in a friendly.

Outlook: Cyprus are a difficult side to play against and they will pose challenges to the rest of the teams in this group. However, Christoforou and his players would have to conjure the qualifying campaign of their lives to advance. This is a promising team, but the group looks too difficult for much else besides another fourth-place finish.


estonia (fifa rank: 117)

Estonia will seek to upset the odds when they begin qualification for Russia 2018. And judging by current form that will be a big ask for Magnus Pehrsson’s charges. Estonia for all intents and purposes are limping into these World Cup qualifiers having won only once in all of 2016 and that victory a mere 2-0 win over Andorra. Their last two matches include a 7-0 defeat by Portugal in June and a 1-1 draw with Malta on Wednesday.

This is somewhat surprising as Pehrsson has the highest winning percentage of any Estonia manager in the last quarter century (for managers with more than ten matches). The overall quality of the squad is perhaps the problem, with the majority of players playing in the relatively weak domestic league.

At home, Estonia are a respectable side as shown in their EURO 2016 qualifiers where they won three of their five matches, including a win over Slovenia. It was just the opposite with their away form.  On their travels the team lost four of five, going scoreless and picking up a single point against…San Marino.

World Cup History: Estonia have never qualified for the FIFA World Cup.

Euro 2016: Estonia managed fourth place in Group E behind England, Switzerland, and Slovenia and ahead of Lithuania, and San Marino. 

The Boss: Magnus Pehrsson’s reign as Estonia coach has lasted since 2014. The Swedish manager has done relatively well with the national team during his tenure. He came to Estonia after coaching stints in Denmark and Sweden. His most notable spell at club level was at Danish club Aalborg. Pehrsson led AaB to the 2008/09 Danish Cup final and in the same season also advanced to the last 16 in the UEFA Cup narrowly going out at the hands of Manchester City.

Key Players: Liverpool’s Ragnar Klavan is the most familiar name in the squad. He is the captain and undisputed leader of this team. Fellow defender Enar Jaager is also a stalwart in the side with 121 caps to his name. For goals, Estonia look to midfielder Konstantin Vassiljev who plays his club ball in Poland. Vassiljev has 21 goals in 89 appearances.

vs. Greece: Greece and Estonia have only met twice, both times in friendly fixtures. In December 1999 the teams drew 2-2 in Greece. Home advantage told in their second match two years later with Greece prevailing 4-2.

Outlook: There is a real commitment to defend by this side and if they can keep matches close they could take points off the big boys. That cannot mask their deficiencies in attack. This is a team that struggles mightily to score goals. Evidence of this can be found in their recent Euro qualifying campaign where they managed a paltry four goals in ten matches. They will concede goals against the higher caliber teams and they simply don’t have the firepower to hope for more than fifth place.


GIBRALTAR (fifa rank: N/A)

For Gibraltar, it’s the experience that will count. How else could it be portrayed? After all, in their only qualifying campaign thus far they lost ten of ten matches, scored twice and conceded 56 times. Having only joined FIFA earlier this year and with a population of 28,000 this is a team has to be realistic. Moral victories and building for the future is what it will be all about for Jeff Woods’ men.

World Cup History: Gibraltar have never qualified for the FIFA World Cup.

Euro 2016: Gibraltar’s first-ever qualifying campaign for a major tournament was a difficult one to say the least. The team lost all ten of their matches with a goal difference of -54. They suffered some big defeats, though they only lost to EURO 2016 participants, Ireland, 4-0 in one match. 

The Boss: Jeff Wood has experience managing in England and Gibraltar. His first full position was at Brighton in 1999, though he only lasted three months in the job. Before joining Gibraltar two years ago, Wood had stints in Malta for Silema Wanderers and Gibraltar for Lions Gibraltar.

Key Players: Most of the players in the squad play domestically, mostly for Lincoln Red Imps. There is a handful who play in the English lower leagues. They include all-time national leading goalscorer Jake Gosling (2 goals; Cambridge United), Scott Wiseman (Scunthorpe United), and Jamie Robba (Torquay).

vs. Greece: The two nations have never met.

Outlook: Any goal will be an added bonus for Gibraltar. It’s likely though that the team will suffer big defeats in this group. If there is any good news it’s in the form of Estonia. One of the three draws in Gibraltar’s history came against Estonia. So if nothing else, Wood will have his side believing they can claim their first ever qualification point against Estonia. 

 
by: Giorgos Tsitsonis. Contact the writer at tsitsonisg.agonasport@gmail.com
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