Vital Point in Brussels
by Greg Gavalas
The mettle of Greece’s National Football Team coach Michael Skibbe was tested in Brussels this past weekend, where Belgium managed to stave off a shock loss against the Greeks. While the Ethniki came away with a vital point 99% of all Greece fans would have been content with prior to kick off, the truth is that Greece was unlucky to not come away with the win and 3 valuable points.
Skibbe’s squad selection was surprisingly decent compared to my expectations. The inclusion of Panagiotis Tachtsidis in the center of midfield flanked by Andreas Samaris and Kostas Stafylidis on either side set a solid defensive foundation in front of defense.
The story of the match was much the same from kick-off till the end, with Belgium attacking and Greece offering little in attack while a solid defense kept the hosts at bay.
Overall possession was 70-30% in favour of Belgium, but the surprise of the match was that our defense – for the first time since 2014 – looked like the strong, organized Greece that opposing teams used to fear. Our MOTM, goalkeeper Stefanos Kapino, had a blinder of a game with some vital saves to keep Belgium scoreless for most of the match.
Belgium was relentless in central midfield, particularly Dries Mertens, the spring heeled attacker kept our defense constantly on their toes but Kostas Manolas, Socratis Papastathopoulos and Giorgos Tzavellas did a good job keeping him grounded (as did Samaris, Tachtsidis and Stafylidis for the most part).
Special merit goes out to Papastathopoulos and Manolas, the twin towers in defense were at their absolute best and really showed their worth out there.
One worrisome aspect of the Greek backline is Vasilis Torosidis; the Bologna based left back simply does not seem to be the player he used to be a few years ago. He was constantly beaten on the wing and the Belgium attackers nearly always managed to launch a dangerous cross into their penalty box. His marauding runs of old from the wings seem to be a thing of the past, but to be fair he had his hands full in the match.
While our defence was strong and kept Belgium out for the most part, what continues to worry me is our lack of ball control in midfield.
I mentioned in my previous article how we have barley been able to control a match since the 2014 World Cup; the stats bear this out once more. We saw very little of the ball this time around. 30% possession sums it up quite succinctly.
As a true believer that a good offence is key defensive component in itself, I don’t expect Greece to play magic football but I do want and expect to see the team have some type of presence in midfield.
The team tried but only in minimal intervals did we put any pressure on Belgium's defense, the goal from Mitroglou at the start of the second half was the only time we put something together and thanks to the inform Benfica striker we jumped into the lead after a great heading build up play from Tachtsidis.
We are lucky to have someone of Mitroglou's calibuire up front and I think we need to give him some service given how lethal he has been. He was also much more mobile in this game, something that has been a strong criticism of Mitroglou (and what looks like a lack of effort when donning the blue jersey in the past) but he did really well on this game, not only with the goal but winning the ball and his distribution with it.
The Tachtsidis and Samaris combo did not do much with the ball. Both players defended well but our build up play was non-existent. Our midfield too congested, lack of decent options saw Tachtsidis give the ball away a few times and Samaris seemed afraid to pass the ball around.
Two main problems with our attacking play (or lack thereof) was the lack of off-ball running and the overall positional play of our (stand in) wingers, neither of whom – Mantalos and Stafylidi- were very effective. Stafylidis went backwards every time he got the ball, his pass would go to a defender and due to a static midfield, that pass would go back to Kapino who would then lob it forward. They continually ceded possession to the opposition.
Skibbe has several months to work on this because we face an interesting task in June when we travel to Bosnia... on top of this we will be without Samaris who has accumulated too many yellow cards as well as Tachtsidis who saw a red for two bookable offences. I felt both were hash decisions on the Cagliari man, his first foul was hardly a yellow. It can be argued he should have been more careful on the second card but to give a second yellow which lead to a red card was a big and disappointing play by the card-happy German referee Felix Brych.
We saw Carlos Zeca get his first cap for the National Team, he defended well but didn't have much of a chance to do anything with it as Belgium pilled on the pressure, which saw Romelu Lukaku score a nice technical goal while warding off Paspastathopoulos.
It was the least Belgium deserved in truth but the positive for Greece is the defensive display we saw.
The attack needs work before we play Bosnia despite the lack of friendlies scheduled before then (none in fact, we should have had a friendly scheduled this week like other nations have), Skibbe will be forced into change in the middle of the field with Samaris and Tachtsidis both suspended. I am sure Zeca will start and I feel Giannis Maniatis will play alongside him, but as I said in my last blog, this is where not giving chances to other up and coming talents hurts us.
Manolis Siopis of Panionios deserves a shot at the Ethniki, I rate him better than Maniatis (age 30) and I still don't know why Aelxandros Tziolis is not only picked for the Greek team but actually gets game time!
Although the respective forms of Kostas Fortounis and Petros Mantalos is not great and it showed in this game, I still feel that the AEK AMF can offer something more than Fortounis at present. It would be great to have Giannis Gianniotas on the wing with Mantalos in the center against Bosnia. Fortounis ran into trouble on most occasion he had the ball in Brussels whilst Mantalos was not particularly effective out wide and in my opinion is wasted there.
With all that we came away with the 1-1, we have a class striker in Mitroglou who only needs one chance and he will score like he did in this game and that's was the only creative piece we saw.
Our defense showed signs of its former solidity, let's hope we can carry that into Bosnia. Tzavellas also saw red vs Belgium late in the game, so it’s likely that Skibbe will slot Stafylidis back in his natural left back position.
We must work on the attack or just holding more possession. We will see what form looks like come June and what we can expect.
We now know it's a three horse race for Russia 2018 and it will be tight, we have come away with two big draws now against our big rivals at home to Bosnia and in Belgium. If we can sneak a win over either team in the return fixtures, that puts us in a demanding position, it's close but we need to be at our absolute best and show some more improvement in attack for that to happen (it's possible).
One thing I give credit to is the drive and energy the Greek team displayed. They made life hell for Belgium and we need to carry this energy and hustle in all remaining games.
Next key game coming up in this race is on 9th of June when the Ethniki travels to Zenica, Bosnia.