An Ethniki heading in the right direction

An Ethniki heading in the right direction

AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis looks at the Ethniki’s positive start to Euro 2020 qualifying.

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The Ethniki have gotten off to a positive start in Euro 2020 qualifying, tallying four points from their opening two matches on the road against Liechtenstein and more impressively in Zenica against Bosnia.

Solid start in Vaduz

The Euro 2020 qualifying campaign kicked off with a convincing 0:2 win in Liechtenstein. At first glance, the 0:2 scoreline might not ‘impress’ against the group’s weakest team which houses many semi-professional players, but a look at the bigger picture is a major takeaway from Greece’s trip to Vaduz. Greece finished the match with a stunning 31 (!) shots, ten of which were on target. Statistics that are rarely seen by a traditionally offensively troubled Greek team.

Again, it is only Liechtenstein, but games against the group ‘minnows’ have not always come easy for Greece or for any national team per say. Even during the Ethniki’s ‘glory days’ between 2002-2014, there were nailbiter matches in games that were theoretically ‘easy.’ Perfect examples include Greece’s trips to Malta in 2007 and 2011, or Greece’s last visit to Vaduz under coach Fernando Santos when 72 minutes were played before Mitroglou broke the deadlock to give Greece a very shaky 0:1 victory in 2014 World Cup qualifying.

Considering the circumstances and the pressure surrounding this new Ethniki, how the result came in Liechtenstein speaks much more than the 0:2 scoreline. It was a nerve racking opening 45 minutes, but when Dimitris Kourbelis brilliantly found Kostas Fortounis, who did extremely well to slot the ball into the back of the net, a massive weight was lifted off the shoulders of the Greek players. The goal came at a critical point in the match on the stroke of halftime, and that allowed the Ethniki to come into the second half and play good, attacking football. The 31 attempts speak for itself and Donis’ goal was the icing on the cake for a good performance.

What followed Fortounis’ opener is also worth noting. The Olympiacos captain went to the Greek bench and celebrated with his teammates, the coach, and his coaching staff, in what was a gesture of team unity. Something that has clearly lacked since 2014. Fortounis is a leader in this new Ethniki and moments like that show that the team morale has change for the better in the locker rooms.

Nightmare start in Zenica

After defeating Liechtenstein quite comfortably, the Ethniki looked to carry this momentum against Group J rivals Bosnia in a hostile Bilino Polje stadium. What transpired was the worst possible start imaginable with Greece falling behind 2:0 by the quarter hour mark.

Coach Angelos Anastasiadis went into the match with defensive tactics, lining his team up in a 5-4-1 formation with three center backs. Anastasiadis’ approach was not wrong as Bosnia are a very powerful side at home, especially in the opening minutes of a match. They swallow opponents with a powerful start, but are then unable to keep up this pressure for the full 90 minutes of play.

Anastasiadis, who is a master at reading a game, knew just that and was not at fault with his defensive approach at the start. It simply did not go to plan as a nervy Greek side allowed two cheap goals to put Bosnia in front. It looked as if the hosts would score more and put Greece to the sword with an embarrassing defeat. However, Anastasiadis made the appropriate changes and after the 20 minute mark, Greece balanced out the game.

Much needed changes by Anastasiadis that sparked a comeback

Seeing that Greece were in disarray, Anastasiadis moved Kourbelis from defense and into the midfield, allowing Greece to control more of possession and gain ground on the pitch. Greece pressed for a goal before halftime, but their best chance of the half was sent over the bar from an advantageous position by Kostas Fortounis. The chance might have gone begging, but it was a sign for things to come.

Anastasiadis’ unorthodox approach with four central midfielders was abandoned at halftime and Giorgos Masouras, a classic winger, was put in the mix for Andreas Bouchalakis. Masouras is an exceptional player, one with characteristics that have lacked in the Ethniki for many years. The Olympiacos man is a winger who threatens in the penalty area, is capable of effectively  reading the play, works well with the wing backs, has good vision, and can put chances away (this needs improvement as seen against Liechtenstein, but he houses this talent). His vision on the pitch was clearly seen in the Ethniki’s second goal against Liechtenstein, providing a clever assist for Donis.

With Masouras’ addition, Greece widened their attack and became a threat on the wings, which proved a vulnerable spot for Bosnia. The Greeks continued to gain ground as the match went on and the momentum shifted for good in Greece’s favor when Fortounis did well to draw a penalty. The 26-year-old, full of confidence, executed a perfect spot kick to put Greece back in the game.

Things took a complete turnaround when Bosnia’s best player on the pitch, Miralem Pjanic, went in recklessly on Carlos Zeca and was rightfully sent off with a straight red card. The Bosnians are known to lose their cool when things are not going their way, and it was clear things were not going their way.

Knowing that Greece were in control, Anastasiadis put on another attacking player in Dimitris Kolovos, a questionable call-up for many. The Omonoia man posed an additional threat on the wings, and when striker Koulouris was put on with ten minutes remaining, he became a more central player where he is more comfortable and effective.

Anastasiadis could not have gotten his substitutions more right and he played a key role in the Greek comeback. Kolovos was the hero who grabbed the equalizing goal with a fantastic header from Zeca’s pinpoint cross, however Koulouris’ addition (for Michalis Bakakis) created the opening for Kolovos. The Atromitos hitman’s presence in the penalty area allowed space for Kolovos to storm into the box and head home the leveler. Pure brilliance from Anastasiadis to do what his does best: read a game.  

Anastasiadis must be given credit for his on the field changes as well. Moving Zeca out on the wings proved a great decision as he provided the assist for the tying goal. The Greek boss was allocated three substitutions, but his in-game tactics made it seem like six or seven changes on the pitch. A great example is Zeca, who played three positions in the game, starting at center midfielder, moving out on the right wing (where he assisted), and ended the game as a right back to help Greece hold the result and even push on for the win. Anastasiadis used every resource he had, and used it to the fullest.

No comeback if Skibbe was in charge

If Michael Skibbe was in charge of the Ethniki, I find it difficult to believe that the Ethniki could overturn such a deficit. Putting aside Anastasiadis’ well drawn up tactings in the comeback, the Greek coach offers something that had lacked in the Ethniki: a sense of belief.

Although Skibbe deserves his share of credit for putting the Ethniki back on the right path after a disastrous Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, he failed to inspire the Greek players that they could achieve something great. In his final game in charge away to Finland in the UEFA Nations League, Greece fell behind 1:0 and never looked as if they could spark a comeback. The game was deemed a ‘final’ to keep hope alive for first place in the group, but Greece fell 2:0 without a fight to a theoretically weaker opponent.

Skibbe’s pre and post-game interviews were also questionable and many times it seemed that he didn’t have confidence in his team. On the other hand, Anastasiadis, who can speak to the players in their native language and get his message across, believes in his players and their abilities. At half-time he told his players “We not only can equalize in the second half, we can go in and win it.” The players did just that and if there were five extra minutes to play, Greece could very well have taken the three points in Zenica.

Keep momentum going for matches ahead

This Greek team must build on the result in Zenica and keep the momentum going. This hopefully can be a sign of things to come. Greece have achieved impressive results in the past (friendly victory against Holland in 2016, a draw away to Belgium in 2017), but this team now has someone in charge that believes they can achieve and in return sparks belief in the players.

The significance of how Greece drew in Bosnia, coming from two goals behind, will help build this fighting spirit. It is much more valuable in terms of morale than the goalless draw in Zenica in 2018 World Cup qualifying. It shows that Greece can achieve results by playing attacking football, and not sitting back on the defense. Of course, the defense is the backbone of the Greek team, but the Ethniki must not be afraid to attack as well, which was seen under Skibbe. This is the philosophy Anastasiadis has implemented in this players and one that can shape his new Ethniki for matches ahead.

The talent is there on all fronts. Do not forget, Greece were without key players such as Vasilis Torosidis, Kostas Manolas, Dimitris Pelkas, Petros Mantalos, and Panagiotis Retsos for the opening qualifiers. Their return will only help the Ethniki in the matches ahead.

The result in Zenica puts Greece in a good position after two matches in qualifying. Next up for Greece will be at home to Italy on June 8th before hosting Armenia three days later. A tough test awaits against former world champions Italy, but this Italian side is not the powerhouse of the past. They house plenty of talent, but young, inexperienced talent. The Ethniki can surely get something out of this match and it is without question that the three points are a must against Armenia. Bosnia will next travel to Finland without their star Miralem Pjanic in what will be a very tough test for the Bosnians. Although Bosnia is considered Greece’s biggest challenger for second place in the group, Finland must not be underestimated after their impressive Nations League campaign and tricky road win in Armenia.

That being said, a good, healthy Ethniki as we saw on Tuesday can push aside Finland as well as Bosnia (as seen on Tuesday) and can slowly start dreaming for a place in a major tournament for the first time since 2014.

Side Note 1: The positive change in the team’s morale in the locker rooms is largely due to the presence of Angelos Basinas and Stelios Giannakopoulos’ in the coaching set-up. The Euro 2004 heroes know the Ethniki very well and are an inspiration to these players. It has been long overdue for members of the Euro 2004 squad to be involved in the Ethniki (Takis Fyssas played a key role as technical director under Otto Rehhagel and Fernando Santos).

Side Note 2: Fiorin Durmishaj’s call up to the Ethniki has sparked criticism due to his Albanian background. The last player that was neutralized was Carlos Zeca. The Portuguese born player is a true soldier for the Ethniki, fighting in each and every match, running tirelessly up and down the pitch, giving it his all for the Galanolefki. He played a vital role against Bosnia, assisting Kolovos’ equalizer, denying a third Bosnian marker with a last ditch header in front of goal, and drew the foul that resulted in Pjanic’s sending off. Zeca lived in Greece for only six years before becoming a Greek international while Durmishaj has grown up in Greece and has developed his footballing career in Greece. I think it is important to embrace Durmishaj to the Ethniki, seeing the heart and passion that comes from Zeca, and hope he will deliver with the same if not better results. The potential is undoubtedly there. Many were quick to judge Zeca the same way and has since become an irreplaceable asset to the national team...

Side Note 3: The Hellenic Football Federation, who have shown time and time again they could care less for the Ethniki, need to make the stadium issue a priority. It is a real shame that the Ethniki is an unwanted body by Greece’s football clubs and as Sokratis Papastathopoulos said on the Total Football show, maybe the Ethniki should play abroad where they will be embraced by the diaspora. To this date, no one understands (even the players) why the national team left the Karaiskakis stadium despite the cries for the players to play there. If the OAKA is chosen while the Pankritio stadium is undergoing renovations (and if the Pankritio will even be home of the national team after the issue with OFI in a match fixing scandal), it will only be detrimental to the Greek players performing in a ‘cold’ environment against Italy and Armenia. It will be anything but a home fixture....

Side Note 4: It is early in the campaign, but looking ahead, the 2:2 draw in Zenica could end up being a ‘win’ for the Ethniki. Seeing that this is a UEFA competition, the first tie-breaker between sides is head-to-head results. The Ethniki will have a valuable two away goals in the scenario of a tie between Greece and Bosnia. In other words, if the two countries draw 0:0 or 1:1 in Greece, and they end up tied on points at the end of the campaign, Greece will have the head-to-head advantage over their Balkan rivals.


by Sarantos Kaperonis

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