The most important game in recent years
by Sarantos Kaperonis
On Friday, Greece will play one of their most important games in recent years when they travel to Bosnia for a critical World Cup qualifier. It has been a pleasant surprise to once again see the Greek national team fighting for a place at a major tournament midway through the qualifying process.
After a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, where Greece recorded one win from ten qualifiers while losing twice to the semi-professional Faroe Islands, the Ethniki that we have come to know over the last decade is back.
Under the coaching of Michael Skibbe, Greece has returned to the style of play that has led them to success since 2004. This includes first building off of a stubborn, compact defensive game play while hoping to catch their opponents off guard with few, but efficient attacks. This playing style was and has been a major complaint from fans, however it is something we have to accept. Though it is not pleasing to the eye, it brings the results we love to see. This is what took the Ethniki to five out of six major tournaments from 2004-2014, a quarter-final appearance at Euro 2012, a spot in the 2014 World Cup knockout stages, and of course the glorious Euro 2004 title.
This style of play earned Greece a hard fought draw in Belgium, against the world's fifth ranked nation, and the Greek team will look to put together a similar performance in Zenica on Friday. The Galanolefki currently sit one point ahead of the Bosnians in group H, and two points behind first placed Belgium. With Belgium clearly being the favorite to win the group, Greece and Bosnia are expected to fight for second place, which leads to a spot in the qualifying playoffs.
Friday’s result will most likely decide who will earn second place in the group. Greece are in a slightly advantageous position sitting ahead of the Bosnians in the standings, however a loss in Bosnia will turn things around. On the other hand, Greece will be satisfied with two results, a draw or a win, while Bosnia will need all three points to keep their fate in their own hands.
A draw, which would be good result, will keep Greece in the driver’s seat for second place, but will likely put us out of reach for first place, if Belgium were to defeat Estonia on the road. With four games remaining, Bosnia have the harder schedule as they need to travel to both Estonia and Cyprus and will also host Belgium in Zenica. Greece on the other hand will have already given four away fixtures and will only have to travel to Cyprus in the final games, in a match that could possibly be treated as a “friendly” from our sister nation.
If Greece were to defeat Bosnia on Friday, not only would this likely ensure second place, but the former European champions will be well in the running for first place with Belgium. The Red Devils will not only have to travel to Greece in September (without Hazard), but they also have to go to the hostile environment in Zenica.
Of course we cannot rule out the worst case scenario which would be a Greek defeat to Bosnia. In this case, Bosnia will have the upper hand for second spot in the group and will control their fate until the end. Greece will need to rely on the help of other results in the group if they were to retake second spot. Would a loss be a catastrophic and surprising result? Not necessarily. Lets not forget, Bosnia is a quality side and are extremely dangerous at home. On a positive note, Bosnia will still have a difficult schedule ahead but nonetheless they would have the prize of controlling their destiny.
Ultimately, Greece’s place in Russia next summer will come down to the result on Friday. If things go our way, the Galanolefki will have a very good chance to qualify for another major tournament, completely putting behind us the tragic Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. Greece will continue to rise in the FIFA World Rankings, which will lead to favorable draws in future qualifying campaigns, setting the stage for more appearances in major tournaments in the future. Just like the past decade.
Time and time again our Ethniki has overcome some of the greatest obstacles, always against the odds. They have already proven themselves midway through World Cup qualifying, sitting in second place behind the stars of Belgium, but the job is still not done. As I mentioned in my piece before qualifying, overcoming the disaster of Euro 2016 will be one of Greece’s toughest tests in the history of the national team. With Friday’s fixture set to decide our place in Russia 2018 and making a comeback from 2014-2016, it is by far the most important game in recent years for our national team.