The Road to Russia comes to Intersection
By Greg Gavalas
Greece's road to the World Cup in Russia next year goes into critical mode this weekend as the road becomes an intersection and our path could take a turn for the worse or a turn for the best in terms of realistic opportunities for World Cup Qualification.
Greece takes on Estonia first on Thursday night and Belgium only 3 nights later. The good news is both games are home games for the Greeks at the Karaiskaki stadium in Piraeus.
At the moment, Belgium lead the group on 16 points followed by Greece on 12 and Bosnia on 11. It really could have and should have been a very different scenario had Greece come away with the away win in Bosnia when Petros Mantalos had that golden opportunity to score the winner or had we held out Belgium away from home if it wasn't for Romelu Lukaku's brilliance in scoring that equalizer. But it is what it is now and we need full focus this weekend.
The first hurdle is Estonia and it is a must win game. We cannot afford anything less, it is as simple as that. Estonia’s away form is anything but impressive but they did out play us in Tallinn back in October 2016. However, we got the goals which is what counts and believe it or not that's the Ethniki's last competitive win.
On the same night Belgium, is at home to Gibraltar and that shouldn't take too much out of them. What we need is Cyprus to play like their lives depended on it and hold out Bosnia in Nicosia. They have a new coach in Ben Simon and hopefully he can breathe some new fight into the Cypriot National Team.
Whilst the Estonia game should seem straight forward, I am a little worried because I feel Michael Skibbe's selections have made this game a risky game due to the lack of friendlies and experience.
The fact that we take on Belgium just 3 days later means we need to rest many first 11 players and it's still not certain if Kostas Mitroglou will be available for the Belgium game and that really worries me.
The two other strikers picked are Apostolos Vellios of Nottingham Forest and Dimitris Diamantakos of German 2nd division club Bochum. Between them, they have 1 appearance in the current season and that was Diamantakos in round 1 in Germany. As you can see, take Mitroglou out of the picture and it's rather bleak. Other options are Tasos Donis whose debut versus Bosnia changed the game for Greece and Anastasios Bakasetas, truth be told though, his form with AEK has been on the bench. His every performance for the Ethniki has also been mediocre at best and rather, Donis did more in 40 minutes against Bosnia than Baka's 4 caps so far.
On my preparation, Donis is saved as a sub if needed and used for the Belgium game whilst Bakasetas and Diamantakos show us their worth versus Estonia. If we fail here with these guys, including Vellios up front, we need to look elsewhere as these are 3 very questionable call ups with no form on the board whilst players like Ioannis Fetfatzidis, Dimitris Pelkas, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, and Thanasis Androutsos have started the season off well for their clubs and most are scoring goals.
On the bright side of things, the Estonia match gives in form debutant, 24-year-old midfielder Andreas Bouchalakis the chance to make his mark on his old stomping ground in Piraeus. He has been in good form for Nottingham Forest and given the two games in close proximity, should get a chance to carry his form in the Estonia match, whilst gaining international experience at the senior level.
I would also love to see Giannis Gianniotas get a run out wide in this game. It has been a tough season having been loaned out again by Olympiacos, but time in Spain will do him good. He has proven to be a valuable attacking weapon for the Greek team and I think we will need his creativity in either match.
What Skibbe will do in the middle is another question. I would love to see Manoli Siopis get a debut versus Estonia, given the selections, while Giannis Maniatis can add some experience to the team leaving Andreas Samaris and Carlos Zeca for Belgium. Panagiotis Tachtsidis, who has been injured all preseason could get some time in this match as well.
AEK's 19-year-old Konstantinos Galanopoulos, who's been in great from this season, would have been a great option to have over Saudi Arabian based Alexandros Tziolis. At only 32 years old, Tzioli's pace has really dropped off whilst Galanopoulos is a real work horse that can help this team like Zeca did.
I have been critical on the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO) for the lack of friendlies the last 12-18 months and this is when it hurts, but I think the talent can handle it.
In defense, with Socratis Papastathopoulos suspended I would love to see the pairing of Panagiotis Retsos and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, although I think we will see Papadopoulos in the Belgium game.
It’s also a great chance to give Charalambos Lykogiannis a run at left back, with Kostas Stafylidis and Giorgos Tzavellas also prim for that position. Some focus is needed on the right back position with just veteran Vasilis Torosidis in that spot, it does beg the question of how it will be split over the two games.
As you can see, we have a scenario of a must win game followed by the big clash with Belgium.
I hope to see something similar to the following line up against Belgium:
Karnezis in goal with the twin towers of Kostas Manolas and Socratis Papastathopoulos (suspended from Estonia game) in front of him. It will be either Tzavellas or Stafylidis at left back and possibly Maniatis at right back.
In the middle, I think Samaris and Zeca complement each other very well although we have not seen this combo in work before. However, the pace and passing of Samaris backed by a workhorse like Zeca should work to give an attacking zone of Mantalos, Kostas Fortounis, and Donis in midfield with Mitroglou up front.
This formula ensures our players can go all out in both games and if need be, players like Mantalos and Fortounis can come on as subs versus Estonia.
Late news says that Torosidis is still recovering from injury which could see Maniatis play right back. This may not be such a bad thing, however Toro's attacking runs and crosses will be missed. I also find it hard to believe Skibbe cannot find another right back to start integrating in this position.
It's going to be a critical weekend for the Ethniki that is for sure. If we fail, Skibbe really needs to look outside the bubble of guarantee selections as several players who have not played this season are still picked at the expense of in-form, young aspiring talents. As I have mentioned through this blog, dynamic experience match winners have also been overlooked.
Let’s hope we have enough in the current squad for a win on Thursday and at least a draw on Sunday…. To hell with that, let’s win on Sunday!