The Ethniki's Ultimate Test
By Greg Gavalas
The Ethniki goes face to face with their ultimate test this weekend, Greece take on a star filled Croatian team with the likes of Real Madrid's Luka Modric, Barcelona's Ivan Rakitic, Inter Milan's Ivan Perisic and Juventus front man Mario Mandzukic, for a place in the FIFA World Cup to be played next year in Russia.
If the opponent's stars are not big enough, Greece faces further problems with injuries and suspensions, no less than 3 key players will be out due to injury and in an unprecedented move, FIFA have suspended Kostas Manolas from the first game in Zagreb for sustaining an intentional yellow card in the qualifier with Cyprus.
The injuries are a concern, the biggest loss for Greece is that of Tasos Donis, the Stuttgart based forward is arguably Greece's biggest threat going forward under the Michael Skibbe "player group" and is one of the few, if not, only players the team had that would take an opponent on, one on one. If that wasn’t bad enough, Petros Mantalos, AEK's captain, injured his ACL a week before these key matches and will be sidelined for a minimum of 6 months.
Mantalos' case though is interesting. I have been a critic of our German coach for some time now, not just because of his ordinary call ups, of out of form bench players, but because a player like Mantalos, is played out of position game in game out for the Ethniki. He is played out on the wing when he is a central player that has done great things there and I would say, has done more for AEK domestically and in Europe than Kostas Fortounis at Olympiacos, who plays centrally for Greece every game.
The case is made more interesting with the fact that Skibbe's hand is forced to be played, and that could mean we see a winger like Giannis Gianniotas and Lazaros Christodoulopoulos played there instead which would make a huge change to our somewhat dysfunctional attack.
The other key injury is Socrates Papastathopoulos, this mammoth loss came out of Dortmund unexpectedly in the derby with Bayern Munich. Socrates was subbed off late in the 2nd half and at this stage looks doubtful for the first leg. His leadership will be sorely missed in the team if he sits out the first leg.
It's of no great surprise that Vasilis Torosidis is under an injury cloud, the Bologna right back has been marred by injuries for some time now but that's not as baffling as how Skibbe calls up 3 left backs in the squad and just Torosidis for right back. In the case he is injured in either game, a makeshift right back like Panagiotis Retsos or Giannis Maniatis will need to play there, all the while Michalis Bakakis is in his holiday house in Amorgos.
The limitation this puts on the team is big. We rely on our left and right backs to attack the flanks, Retsos was very poor there in the match with Estonia (0-0) although reports say he is doing well there for Leverkusen. Still I think he is central defender that will be needed there in the absence of Manolas and Papastathopoulos.
Then there is Maniatis... an ordinary footballer well past his prime, should not be getting regular selection for the national team, yet could be starting for us in a World Cup qualifier playoff.
The good news is Kostas Mitroglou is back to lead the line. He is really our only worthy striker for this stage and picked up a goal for Marseille in France on the weekend which is a much-needed boost for his confidence after some early struggles in Ligue 1.
We need to hope he pulls up fine after the first game as Skibbe’s backups, Dimitris Diamantakos and Apostolos Vellios are also not worth of National team selection, in fact we are better off playing Christodoulopoulos up front if need be.
In a rear case of selection nightmares, Greece's most in form goalkeeper is AEK's Giannis Anestis. The man from Chalkida is in great form and no better showing than that at the San Siro against AC Milan that saw Anestis make the UEFA Europa League team of the week, but Skibbe has never given him a minutes game time so match deprived Orestis Karnezis will no doubt take the field. Karnezis has much experience under his belt but his confidence can't be great after a shaky debut for Watford in the Premier League on Saturday.
With the suspensions and injuries in defense, I believe we will see Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Retsos center up, not bad combination, with Torosidis on the right and Giorgos Tzavellas on the left. This should still be a strong back line.
It's the midfield that I think will make or break us... Carlos Zeca will start as one double pivot, we know that and that's a good selection, the key for Greece is who plays next to him, who plays left midfield, and who takes Mantalos' place.
We do NOT want to see Alexandros Tziolis start in this game. The tall, but slow midfielder, is another player I don’t believe warrants a National Team call up, yet alone a starting role in such a game with the likes of Modric, Rakitic, and Perisic around. Besides being too slow, his passing game does not offer us anything, and the truth is he ruins every attack he gets involved with, we cannot afford this in such a game. Andreas Samaris is not in great form but of all the other midfielders Skibbe has picked, only one other comes with experience at this stage and that is Panagiotis Tachtsidis.
I have argued on many strengths and weaknesses for the now, Olympiacos midfielder, but given the runners that will be around him, I think he will make a great addition to the midfield. What he lacks in speed and mobility, but makes up for it with size and possibly the best attacking passing game in this squad. With the style of play needed for this game, he could be the attacking link we need from deep.
Fortounis will play centrally, not much to say there, his speed has worked well in these games...play your best game Kosta.
That leaves the left and right midfield... I will be praying for the following combination – Lazaros on the left and Dimitris Pelkas on the right... the PAOK midfielder is the player that has been brought in for Mantalos and is in great form. He is in better form than Fortounis and up there with Lazaros... a trio of these three would add speed we have not had for a long time, give or take a Gianniotas in the mix and you have three fast players, being fed by Tachtsidis and feeding Mitroglou, I believe this is our secret formula but I don’t think Skibbe will do this.
We should see some of it, one of Lazaros, Gianniotas or Pelkas will replace Mantalos, but I also think Skibbe will play Kostas Stafylidis at left midfield and will render the left side nonexistent in attack... we will be stronger defensively but I think we need to show some initiative in the first game and test the Croat defense. Stafylidis is a good left back, he's not a midfielder and is not playing at club level, we should play in-form players in their natural position and surprise Croatia, whose form is not anything to worry about on paper, but if we go with no attacking threats, we will not come out well.
Play our best players, in their positions and it sets us up for the return game on Sunday, either way, we brace for what we do best, win playoffs.