GRE-CRO Preview: Miracle Sought In Piraeus
FIFA WORLD CUP 2018 QUALIFYING - PLAYOFF, LEG 2
|Greece||2:45 PM (EST)||Croatia|
(1 - 4 Agg.)
AGONAsport’s George Tsitsonis previews Greece's second leg matchup in at the Karaiskakis stadium against Croatia in the FIFA World Cup qualifying European playoffs.
One could look at any number of Greek cliches. The first leg against Croatia was a Greek tragedy or perhaps comedy depending on who you ask. The 4-1 deficit going into the second leg of the World Cup playoffs against the Croatians then surely needs a “herculean” effort from Michael Skibbe’s team.
Whatever way one chooses to describe it, Greece need a sporting miracle on Sunday night at the Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium in order to advance to the World Cup in Russia next summer. The Ethniki did themselves no favors with a truly terrible first leg display in Zagreb. In one of the worst defensive performances by the team in recent memory, Greece made a good Croatia side look like a wonder-team on Thursday. Croatia took the opportunity to slice apart a Greek backline thanks to midfield dominance by the trio of Luka Modric, Ivan Rakitic, and Marcelo Brozovic.
Skibbe was slammed in many quarters for his team selection. And certainly the German coach bears blame for fielding essentially an experimental side (both with players playing out of position and formation-wise) in one of Greece’s biggest matches in the last few years. However, the Greek players also must share in the blame. Some of the Greek defending was calamitous, individual errors along with non-existent marking essentially gifting Croatia their goals on the night.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic couldn’t have asked for a better first leg display and score from his side. Now Dalic must manage this lead through the second leg to bring his team to Russia. While few believe that Croatia won’t go through, the Vatreni must stay focused and see out the second match. This is a side that traditionally has had its mental strength questioned. Even Dalic knows that the pressure, weirdly enough, is on his team heading into the second leg. Dalic calling it a sure ‘tragedy’ should his side fail to protect their three-goal advantage.
Vasilis Torosidis is nearing a return for Greece. The Bologna right-back appears to have overcome his recent injury and should be fit to start in the second leg. Andreas Samaris’ participation in the second leg will be a game-time decision. Samaris picked up a knock in the first match against the Croatians forcing him to come off.
Dalic will have a little of a selection headache with Mario Mandzukic nearing full fitness. The Juventus striker was left out of the first leg line-up and not needed as a substitute with Croatia controlling proceedings. Now Dalic needs to decide whether Mandzukic should feature or if he should keep the faith with his team from the first leg.
Greece: Karnezis, Tzavellas, Manolas, Papastathopoulos, Torosidis, Zeca, Tziolis/Tachtsidis, Fortounis, Christodoulopoulos, Bakasetas, Mitroglou
Croatia: Subasic, Vida, Strinic, Vrsaljko, Lovren, Brozovic, Rakitic, Modric, Perisic, Kramaric, Kalinic
11/9/17 Croatia-Greece 4-1 (World Cup Playoffs)
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)
11/9/17 Croatia-Greece 4-1 (World Cup Playoffs)
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)
Dutch ref Bjorn Kuipers will oversee the return leg in Piraeus. Kuipers began his refereeing in 2002 in the Dutch Eerste Divisie. He has since gone on to referee at the top level in Holland, but also around Europe and the world. The 44-year-old has whistled the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup Final, the 2014 UEFA Champions’ League Final, and most recently the FIFA U-20 World Cup Final.
Kuipers actually oversaw the second leg of Olympiacos’ match-up with United back in the 2013/14 season.. In addition to that Kuipers has refereed two Schalke victories over Olympiacos and PAOK in the Champions’ League and Europa League, respectively. Of particular note, Kuipers also took control of the Greek national team’s 3-1 defeat to Bosnia in qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Based on the first leg result and performance by both teams, it would be far-fetched to envision Greece advancing to the World Cup. The 4-1 deficit is a heavy one and Croatia may not be a defensive force, but certainly they possess enough at the back to protect such an advantage.
For Greece the only left to do is to respond with a performance full of energy and passion to give their supporters the respect they deserve. If the Ethniki can do that then they can at least exit this qualifying campaign with their heads held high.
Of course, there is the possibility, minimal as it may be, that Greece could make a match of this. An early goal or first half one could certainly instill some belief. And then another and who knows. Far-fetched notion? Yes, but certainly football has proven to be a sport where the unexpected and unthinkable every so often occur. It might not be likely, but Greece must chase a dream that at this point they cannot see.