CRO-GRE Preview: Tense First Leg On The Horizon In Zagreb
FIFA WORLD CUP 2018 QUALIFYING - Playoff, Leg 1
|Croatia||2:45 PM (EST)||Greece|
AGONAsport’s George Tsitsonis previews Greece's first leg matchup in Zagreb against Croatia in the FIFA World Cup qualifying European playoffs.
Greece will have to overcome more than just their Croatian opposition as they get set for the first leg of their European playoffs for the right to play in the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Thursday’s match in Zagreb would be difficult enough under normal circumstances, but the Greek side enters that match in anything but ideal conditions.
A horribly-timed injury crisis and controversial suspension from FIFA leaves Michael Skibbe searching for options ahead of the crucial matches versus Croatia. The likes of Tasos Donis and Petros Mantalos have been ruled out of both playoff legs, while Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Vasilis Torosidis are in a race against the clock to prove their fitness. Add to that the surprise decision by FIFA to ban Kostas Manolas for trying to earn a yellow card in the final qualifiers and it’s clear to see the unwanted position the Ethniki find themselves in.
Croatia meanwhile have some injury concerns, but theirs is more of a mental challenge rather than a physical one ahead of the two-legged affair. This is a side that have always possessed individual quality in abundance, but who seem to lack the psychological edge when it matters most.
Considering Greece’s injury problems and the fact that Zlatko Dalic’s side possess players of the calibre of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Mario Mandzukic amongst others, it’s safe to say that Croatia start out the two matches as the favorites.
While the hosts’ injury issues pale in comparison to Greece’s, Dalic does have some headaches going into the first leg.
There has been great concern over Mario Mandzukic’s thigh injury suffered against Benevento at the weekend. Mandzukic has missed training all week due to the pain. The reports state that the Juventus forward’s participation will a game-time decision.
Midfielder Milan Badelj has been ruled out of the two matches due to a thigh injury. The Fiorentina man picked up the knock this weekend in the 4-2 home defeat to Roma.
Donis and Mantalos are the big misses for Greece in the matches against the Vatreni. The concern has now shifted to the fitness of Papastathopoulos and Torosidis. Both players are expected to be game-time decisions, though there is a suggestion that Papastathopoulos will be ready while Torosidis will begin on the bench.
Due to the injury issues and FIFA suspension of Manolas, three relatively new players have been drafted into the squad. Dimitris Pelkas has been brought in for attacking cover while defensive reinforcements have also been named with the inclusion of Dimitris Kolovetsios and Marios Oikonomou.
Croatia: Subasic, Vrsaljko, Lovren, Mitrovic, Vida, Bradaric, Rakitic, Perisic, Modric, Kramaric, Mandzukic
Greece: Karnezis, Tzavellas, Papastathopoulos, Papadopoulos, Retsos, Tziolis, Zeca, Fortounis, Stafylidis, Bakasetas, Mitroglou
10/9/17 Ukraine-Croatia 0-2 (World Cup Qualifier)
10/6/17 Croatia-Finland 1-1 (World Cup Qualifier)
9/5/17 Turkey-Croatia 1-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
9/3/17 Croatia-Kosovo 1-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
6/11/17 Iceland-Croatia 1-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
10/10/17 Greece-Gibraltar 4-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
10/7/17 Cyprus-Greece 1-2 (World Cup Qualifier)
9/3/17 Greece-Belgium 1-2 (World Cup Qualifier)
8/31/17 Greece-Estonia 0-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
6/9/17 Bosnia-Greece 0-0 (World Cup Qualifier)
The man in the middle for this first leg will be Italian referee Gianluca Rocchi. The Florence-born Rocchi began his refereeing career in 2000 in Serie C. The 44-year-old has since moved up the ranks to Serie A as well as European and international competitions.
WIth regard to Greek teams he has officiated, Rocchi has overseen one win and two Greek losses at club level. Rocchi refereed the Olympiacos-Manchester United match from the 2013/14 season where Olympiacos picked up a first leg win in the Champions’ League Round of 16. Previously, he officiated losses for Panathinaikos and AEK in 2009 and 2010.
Greece and Croatia have met on six previous occasions with Greece holding a slight advantage with two wins to Croatia’s one and three matches ending in draws. The two teams first met as part of the qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup. In those pair of fixtures, Greece earned a 1-1 draw in Zagreb with Croatia winning the reverse fixture 1-0.
Two friendlies followed for the two sides. Greece won the first at home in 1999, 3-2. Two years later in April 2001, the two teams played out a 2-2 draw in Croatia.
The last time the two countries met was as part of the EURO 2012 qualifiers. A 0-0 draw was the result in Croatia in September 2010. In October 2011, Greece won 2-0 on their way to booking a spot at EURO 2012.
A sell-out crowd is expected to produce a particularly hostile environment on Thursday evening at the Maksimir Stadium. The expectation is that Greece will sit back and focus on their defensive solidity and aim to hit on the counter-attack. Croatia meanwhile will likely have the possession and take the initiative to try and break down Greece’s defensive resistance. It will be quite the surprise should the match take on a different form.
Injuries will surely affect both sides. And with Papastathopoulos and Torosidis on one side and Mandzukic on the other all being game-time decisions, the suspense of who will play will probably not be known until kick-off. The difference could come down to that as well. Greece will be much more used to playing their style with Papastathopoulos and Torosidis in the line-up. On the flip side, Croatia are simply a much more dangerous attacking threat with Mandzukic leading the line.
With virtually everyone knowing what kind of game to expect, it will basically come down to who can execute best. Can Croatia used that individual talent to carve open the Greek backline? Or will Greece conjure enough another brave rearguard performance that gives the advantage heading back home.
It has all the makings of an extremely tense night in Zagreb with both teams eager to take a gigantic step toward Russia 2018.