A second lifeline for the Ethniki that must not go to waste
AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis analyzes Greece’s UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying draw and how luck has given the Ethniki a second lifeline that must not go to waste.
Heading into last week’s EURO 2020 qualifying draw, things did not look promising for the Ethniki, as they were placed lowly pot four. The same pot with teams such as Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania and Albania, to name but a few. Three theoretically “tougher” opponents awaited Greece in Euro 2020 qualifying with only the top TWO teams earning a place in the final tournament.
This downfall in Greece’s seeding started after a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, in which the Greeks entered as a pot one team and finished LAST in their respective group. Greece then entered 2018 World Cup qualifying as a pot three side and drew Belgium (Pot 1), Bosnia (Pot 2), Cyprus (Pot 4), Estonia (Pot 5), and Gibraltar (Pot 6). Although it was a challenging draw, Bosnia didn’t pose an impossible task for an Ethniki that was hoping to forget the last two years (2014-2016) and re-build a team that could qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Belgium were the clear favorites to win the group.
The Ethniki took advantage of the draw presented to them as they finished second in the group and earned a place in the qualifying playoffs, but the team then bowed out to eventual World Cup finalists, Croatia, 4:1 on aggregate.
A second lifeline
After a poor UEFA Nations League campaign, where Greece finished third in their League C group, the Ethniki were placed into pot four for Euro 2020 qualifying. However, considering the circumstances, lady luck was on Greece’s side once again. Greece were placed in the final group (Group J) alongside Italy (Pot 1), Bosnia (Pot 2), Finland (Pot 3), Armenia (Pot 5), and Liechtenstein (Pot 6).
By no means was Greece drawn into an “easy’ group, however, going into the draw as a pot 4 team, the Ethniki can only feel lucky to be a part of Group J. It gives fans a sense of hope that a “normal” Ethniki side can challenge a top two place in the group and qualify for their first major tournament since the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Taking a look at the other groups, Group C would be an impossible task from the get go with the Netherlands and Germany, while Group B (Portugal, Ukraine, Serbia), Group F (Spain, Sweden, Norway), Group H (France, Iceland, Turkey), and Group I (Belgium, Russia, Israel) would put Greece as a clear outsider heading into the March qualifiers.
Group J gives Greece hope. One could call it another lifeline (after the 2018 World Cup draw) for the Galanolefki when things could have been much worse, or in some cases impossible (Group C with Holland and Germany).
Opponents that a “normal” Ethniki can compete with
Italy from pot one will be the clear favorites to top the group, but the neighbors to the west are not the dominant force of the past. The Azzurri missed the last World Cup, and if they pick up a couple of disappointing results in Euro qualifying, heavy pressure will be applied on the team and manager Roberto Mancini. With Greece hosting Italy on matchday three, a Greek win (or even a draw) could ignite this pressure from the passionate Italian fans early on. The four-time world champions know that a second missed major tournament would be detrimental to the reputation of the footballing nation.
*A concerning factor when looking at the schedule... If Italy have achieved qualification by matchday nine when they travel to Bosnia, a weakened, indifferent Italian side could face a hungry Bosnia team that will be hoping to claim second place ahead of Greece and Finland.
Bosnia are familiar foes to the Greek team, and in the last qualifying campaign, the Ethniki managed to finish ahead of their Balkan rivals in their respective group. Greece have proven they can compete with Bosnia and a “normal” Ethniki can once again finish ahead of the Bosnians in the group, who along with Greece are expected to be the main contenders for second spot once again. A key role early on will be the matchday two derby in Zenica between the Galanolefki and Bosnia while the return fixture is scheduled for matchday 8 in Greece, which could very well be a “do or die” match in October 2019. Thankfully, the match will be played at home where hopefully Greece will have the backing of many supporters to achieve the desired result late on in group play.
Finland are also familiar opponents to the Greek team after the inaugural UEFA Nations League. Although Finland topped the League C group, a good Ethniki side can pull away from Finland in the standings and make second (or first) place a three rather than four horse race. The Scandinavians are respectable opponents, however, in a mini-league of ten matches, it will be difficult for them to compete with the likes of Italy, Bosnia and a “normal” Greece side.
Armenia were drawn from pot 5 and I expect them to play a critical role in the group. Armenia’s placement in Group J could work in favor or against Greece. Armenia are not a side where three points are guaranteed (i.e a San Marino) and their home matches will pose some difficult trips for their opposition. Greece control their own fate going into this campaign and if they manage to rack up six points against Armenia, expect the Armenians to take points away from a theoretically stronger opponent (Italy, Bosnia, Finland) in the group, which could make Armenia a Greek alley in the end. They host Finland on matchday two and if Armenia steal points from this fixture, it could see Finland fall behind early on in the fight for second place.
Liechtenstein were drawn from pot six and an average performance from any of the sides above will be enough to defeat the minnows of the group. Any dropped points against Liechtenstein could be a fatal blow to anyone’s hopes of qualifying from Group J. This is something Greece will want to avoid at all costs when they travel to Liechtenstein to open their qualifying campaign on March 23rd.
*It is important to note that both Bosnia and Finland have already secured a playoff spot in EURO 2020 qualifying after topping their respective UEFA Nations League groups. This is also something that could play a factor on how players approach this qualifying campaign knowing that they have the playoff cushion if they fail to achieve first or second place in the group.
Ethniki must not waste lifeline
The Ethniki find themselves in a group that they can clearly compete with. The question remains if the Ethniki will play to standard. If the Ethniki is “normal”, they will be in the fight for second place all the way to the wire, but if not, Greece will be fighting for third or fourth place in the group and will say goodbye to another major tournament.
The draw keeps Greece alive going into March. This lifeline must not go to waste. If it does, Greece will continue to find themselves with the Estonians, Albanias, Lithuanians in pot four, and come 2022 World Cup qualifying, the draw might not be so kind. There is no question that if Greece miss out on Euro 2020, it will officially turn national football back to the “petrina hronia” and a major tournament appearance will seem like a miracle as it did in 2004.
If Greece do capitalize in Euro 2020 qualifying and qualify for their first major tournament since 2014, the Ethniki will begin building their rankings for the 2022 World Cup and find themselves in a more favorable position ahead of qualifying. This is the first step to building the Ethniki back into the higher seedings on the national level, because only a limited number of lifelines will present themselves.