Showdown in Belgium
FIFA WORLD CUP QUALIFYING - GROUP H (MATCHDAY 5)
|Belgium||3:45 PM (EST)||Greece|
Gergios Tsitsonis from AGONAsport.com brings you a full preview for Greece's match against Belgium in World Cup Qualifying.
Greece face their most difficult test yet in their bid to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup as they play Belgium in a European Group H qualifier. Roberto Martinez’s Red Devils are the overwhelming favorites heading into this tie, both due to their abundance of quality as well as their group performances thus far.
Belgium, currently ranked #5 in the world, are not only one of the best teams in world football at the moment, they are also one of the deepest. In recent years the country has worked wonders in producing young talent and many of the current crop of players are coming into the best years of their respective careers.
Michael Skibbe’s Greek side would do well to get anything out of this game, but though Belgium are tipped to pick up their 5th straight win in the group, the Ethniki head into this fixture with some optimism. Giorgos Tzavellas’ last-gasp thunderbolt equalizer back in November saved a point against Bosnia-Herzegovina and suggested that this team has put the nightmarish EURO 2016 qualifying campaign behind it.
3,000 Greek supporters are expected in the King Baudouin Stadium, which will be a welcome boost to Skibbe and his players. Add to this the fact that several members of the squad are in good form at the moment at club level and there is a feeling that if things go right on Saturday evening in Brussels then the Galanolefki could snag something from this fixture.
Belgium: The biggest piece of news coming out of the Belgian camp this week was the reports that Eden Hazard would miss this qualifier and Belgium’s friendly versus Russia next Tuesday. Hazard could not overcome a calf injury and thus has been replaced in the squad by his younger brother, Thorgen.
Midfielder Marouane Fellaini and defender Thomas Meunier both missed training early on in the week. However, their cases are not a cause for concern as Fellaini was just rested after a Sunday match against Middlesboro for Manchester United while Meunier need to skip training for a couple days due to an ankle injury.
Greece: Skibbe must contend with some key absences to his squad. Goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis, Greece’s established number one, has been ruled out as has Nikos Karelis with a long-term injury and Kyriakos Papadopoulos through suspension (red card versus the Bosnians).
Those three are out, but a trio of new faces take their place. Zeca, Thanasis Androutsos, and Giorgos Manthatis have been selected into the squad as they all fight to earn their first international cap. Zeca is a naturalized Greek, who only received citizenship last week. The Portugal-born midfielder has been playing his trade in Greece for Panathinaikos since 2011 and has long wanted to wear the blue and white of the Ethniki. Androutsos and Manthatis have been two of the very few bright spots for Olympiacos this season and the two 19-year-olds will add some youthful exuberance and creativity to the national team attack.
Belgium top Group H with 12 points from four matches along with 21 goals scored and only one conceded. Last time out they destroyed Estonia 8-1 in yet another example of their awesome potential in attack. Two points behind Martinez and company is Greece on 10 points and a plus seven goal differential. Bosnia are 3rd with seven points. They are followed by Cyprus (3 Points, -5 GD), Estonia (3 Points, -10 GD), and Gibraltar (0 Points, -15 GD).
Realistically, it looks as though it will be Belgium, Greece, and Bosnia fighting it out for 1st place and automatic qualification to Russia 2018 and 2nd place which leads to a playoff against another 2nd place finisher for the right to go to the World Cup.
Belgium: Courtois, Meunier, Ciman, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Witsel, Fellaini, Mertens, Carrasco, De Bruyne, Lukaku
Greece: Glykos, Stafylidis, Torosidis, Manolas, Papastathopoulos, Zeca, Samaris, Fortounis, Mantalos, Gianniotas, Mitroglou
- 11/13/16 Belgium-Estonia 8-1 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 11/9/16 Netherlands-Belgium 1-1 (International Friendly)
- 10/10/16 Gibraltar-Belgium 0-6 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 10/7/16 Belgium-Bosnia-Herzegovina 4-0 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 9/6/16 Cyprus-Belgium 0-3 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 9/1/16 Belgium-Spain 0-2 (International Friendly)
- 11/13/16 Greece-Bosnia Herzegovina 1-1 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 11/9/16 Greece-Belarus 0-1 (International Friendly)
- 10/10/16 Estonia-Greece 0-2 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 10/7/16 Greece-Cyprus 2-0 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 9/6/16 Gibraltar-Greece 1-4 (2018 World Cup Qualifier)
- 9/1/16 Netherlands-Greece 1-2 (International Friendly)
Greece and Belgium have met on seven occasions with the Greeks holding a 3-2 series lead along with two draws between the teams. Their last meeting was in a February 2012 friendly in Greece that ended in a 1-1 draw.
The man in charge of this World Cup qualifier is Felix Brych. The 41-year-old German has been officiating in the Bundesliga since 2004 and has been a FIFA referee since 2007. His highest profile match to date was the 2014 Europa League Final between Sevilla and Benfica.
Hazard’s injury is surely a boost for the Greek side, however only slightly. While the Chelsea playmaker’s absence seems like a positive, the reality is that Belgium have plenty of players to fill the void. The likes of Lukaku, De Bruyne, Mertens, Nainggolan, Vertonghen, and Courtois amongst others are household names in Europe and a testament to the riches Belgium have at their disposal. That said, Belgium are also a team that haven’t quite hit the heights many thought they would. Their EURO 2016 quarterfinal defeat to Wales was a classic case of a bunch of talented individuals being defeated by a real unified team. Belgium must show they have what it takes as a unit, especially in matches against teams like Greece, who are are known for being better than the sum of their individual parts.
If Kostas Mitroglou can begin to translate his club form to the national team then that will be a start to something good on Saturday. However, as mentioned, Greece need all 11 players committed and focus from the start and the backline to be in no mood to give away anything cheaply. Can they really grab a result? The answer is yes, but it will take as good a performance as Greece have produced in the last three to four years. Regardless, this will be a real litmus test of Skibbe’s work. A result or even a narrow defeat and the team can push on with confidence to Bosnia away in June, conversely a big defeat would raise questions once again about the direction of this team.
If Lukaku, De Bruyne, and Mertens are allowed time and space early then it could be a long night for Greece. The key is perhaps the first 20 minutes. That is a football cliche no doubt, but if the Belgians can be kept at bay and the Ethniki can settle into the game then the belief will be there to grab a point, if not more.