Ethniki - Glass Half Empty or Half Full?
by Nick Tsambouniaris
AGONAsport’s Nick Tsambouniaris talks about Greece’s FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in Group H and gives his outlook on the upcoming playoffs.
So now that the dust is beginning to settle on a tense, nerve wracking 10 game World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia 2018, was this phase a success or not? Of course we have reached the playoffs as an unseeded team and there are still 2 more vital games remaining, but now is a good time to reflect on what we have learnt and more importantly, what can be done to book our ticket to the biggest sporting competition on the planet.
Greece entered this campaign with morale at an all-time low after a pathetic Euro 2016 qualifying campaign that needs no mention. Exciting back-to-back friendly wins over Australia and the Netherlands before the commencement of the new campaign showed the team can play high-tempo, attractive football and get results but these were only friendlies of course.
The first real test came in November 2016 when we faced Bosnia at home with the winner set to gain an early advantage in the race for second spot in the group behind a rampant Belgian side. A late thunderbolt from the fiery left back Giorgos Tzavellas saved our blushes and ensured we remained the favourite for second spot. It was disappointing to see us lose possession, and attempt to sit back and soak up pressure, to play on the counter as we may consider ourselves lucky that Bosnia missed numerous gilt-edged chances. To be fair, we did have our moments during the game but it could be argued more needed to be done in the final third, and possibly rightfully so. It did, however, pave the way for what was to come throughout the rest of the qualifying campaign. Our trademark fighting spirit and belief had been restored and we continued to pick up results, regardless of the negative performances.
The 1-1 draw away to Belgium in March 2017 highlighted our newfound never-say-die attitude as the team fought its way to a result that put us in the box seat for second spot, playing with 10 men for a large portion of the second half. This is perhaps the thing we can take away most from the last 10 qualifiers. The playing group finally became a family again and put to bed the ghosts of the previous campaign. Skibbe does deserve credit for this, but is it enough?
The drama continued in June 2017 in our well-publicised 0-0 draw at Bosnia which became infamous for the post-game scenes. Petros Mantalos missed a late sitter which would have had us second spot all but guaranteed, possibly even in with a shout of challenging for top spot. Once again the belief was there to be seen but we did create a couple of big chances in the second half and fans have the right to wonder why Skibbe did not set out to take advantage of Bosnia’s weak defence.
The frustrating goalless draw at home to Estonia was undoubtedly the low point of the campaign. With several key players missing, Skibbe failed to find the right formula to break down a stubborn Estonian defence. More worrying, we barely threatened to score. Thankfully a few days later we saw an improved performance against Belgium but it still resulted in our first (and only) loss of the campaign. Consequently, we had to rely on a massive favour from an already qualified Belgium to get a result in Bosnia, and then keep an eye out for results in other groups to ensure we would not be the worst second placed team, all while we had to beat Cyprus and Gibraltar (which we did so in unconvincing fashion, especially Cyprus). On the last 2 match days, it all went our way and here we are today awaiting our playoff opponent.
We have clearly learnt that the strong, battling attitude has returned but there are also a few other positives to take away and build on. The introduction of young gun Tasos Donis later on in the qualifiers has given us something we lacked - a confident, raw talent that is not afraid to take defences on by himself. He may well be a useful weapon come November in the playoffs. In addition, Sokratis Papastathopoulos has proven to be our backbone and leader. This is definitely something we lacked in the Euro 2016 qualifiers. His passion and experience will be crucial in the upcoming games. Zeca also proved to be a smart addition as his good performances have also been rewarded with a goal and an assist in his short Ethniki career. He will be the first central midfielder chosen and rightfully so.
The return of Kostas Mitroglou from injury in the final 2 qualifiers can also be viewed as a positive but it does illustrate our striking woes. An unfit Mitroglou scored 3 goals against Cyprus and Gibraltar. Without him you really struggle to see where the goals are going to come from. The next month is absolutely crucial for him to return to full match sharpness with Marseille as Vellios and Diamantakos have failed to impress so far.
Depth has always been an issue and it almost got the better of us in these qualifiers. With many players either injured or facing suspensions, we saw multiple different fullbacks for instance. Vasilis Torosidis will start at right back in the playoffs if fit, but truth be told, he has massively regressed. Much to the disappointment of many, Skibbe has failed to call up a natural right back time after time. Left back has been another troubled position. With Holebas out of the picture, Skibbe prefers Tzavellas over Stafylidis and Lykogiannis. Does Tzavellas really have the quality to be a starter in this team?
It is apparent we will see the team lineup in a 4-2-3-1 formation as Skibbe has shown a reluctance to change. Zeca looks like being one holding midfielder but who he gets paired with is still up in the air. Tachtsidis does not get enough chances but has not lived up to the hype when played. Samaris has been disappointing for some time. Kourbelis and Siopis could be the answers but Skibbe’s reluctance to try new options means neither will be considered for a starting spot for the playoffs. Then there Tziolis. It is beyond incredible that this guy still has a place in this team. When in the side, our attacks either slow down or end when he gets near the ball. He was once a decent option to sit in front of the back four, but his time is up and his presence does more harm than good.
The trio behind the striker have been the most underwhelming. Kostas Fortounis and Petros Mantalos have both scored a paltry one goal each across the campaign. Assists have also been hard to find. This has led to an over-reliance on Mitroglou. Fortounis’ form has dramatically dipped in the last 12 months and Mantalos gets played out of position by Skibbe on the right, as opposed to centrally. It is unfair to judge the reintroduction of Lazaros Christodoulopoulos after one game, but perhaps he should have been called up sooner. Giannis Gianniotas is another who can consider himself unlucky. The pacy Valladolid winger is naturally suited to the right and can provide some much needed speed and unpredictability to our attacks, yet is overlooked for Mantalos. On the left, Stafylidis has often played out of position in a more advanced role. Playing players out of position may possibly explain why we haven’t reached the heights we hoped for in terms of our attack.
Furthermore, the tactics employed by Skibbe in most games may have allowed us to stabilise but has made us a predictable opponent for better sides. This has led to many claiming we have “picked up results in spite of the performances”. In games against the likes of Cyprus where even lesser known European teams would throw more caution to the wind, we opted for long balls. This is something that has to change, moreso when we play the weaker teams in our group.
Another issue, out of Skibbe’s control is the lack of friendlies we have played. Coupled with an atrocious Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, this has led to us being an unseeded team for the playoff draw. If only the EPO scheduled some friendlies to boost our ranking, and try out new players and formations. Many have called for 3-5-2 to be trialled, which makes sense as Kyriakos Papadopoulos mostly sits on the bench. Friendlies would have been the ideal landscape to trial that for instance.
As it can be observed, progress has been made and we accomplished our first mission of getting out of the group, but is close enough good enough? Should we be settling for this type of mentality? The aim now has to be to win the two-legged playoff regardless of the opposition. Skibbe and the players have a platform to work off but have to rise to new levels which is doable. The two performances against Belgium demonstrated we can match anyone, but we are talking about a spot in the World Cup, we have to lift further. Hopefully the players return from their clubs fit and ready, and Skibbe makes the right calls. A packed stadium in the home leg will feel like a 12th man as well.