Do or Die in Zenica
by Greg Gavalas
Greg Gavalas talks about Greece's all-important qualifier against Bosnia on Friday.
The Greek National Team faces another very tough task this weekend as they come face to face with Bosnia; an away match that is sure to have tension, cheers, tears and God knows what else.
The battle for the top 2 places in Group H for either direct qualification or a playoff to next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia is well and truly on between Greece, Bosnia, and Belgium.
Belgium will be playing at the same time in Estonia--a match they are very likely to win--which only increases the need for Greece to obtain a positive result in Bosnia.
Greece is nothing if not unpredictable. We have not played great football since the friendly versus Holland in September 2016, but since then we have had good results in the qualification campaign with wins over Gibraltar, Cyprus and Estonia in addition to a pair of draws vs Bosnia (at home) and Belgium (away).
We were fortunate to come away with a draw in the first match vs Bosnia. Bosnia dominated play for most of the game, especially during the first half where we miraculously managed to finish only trailing by one-nil.
We started that game with Giannis Maniatis and Andreas Samaris in the middle of the field, flanked by Kostas Stafylidis and Petros Mantalos.
Samaris is unavailable due to suspension, which doesn’t bode well for us, although on most occasions where we have failed to hold any form of midfield presence, both Andreas Samaris and Giannis Maniatis (recently released by Atromitos) have featured.
Neither player is particularly adept at maintaining possession, but at least Samaris’ passing is good; that will be missed but he can be replaced.
Our Achilles heel, is still the fact we have not utilized friendlies to try something new out, although when we do our managers still prefer to give washed-up players like Alexandros Tziolis a run (ironically we have not won a match he has started since November 2013!).
Skibbe’s selections this time around are good with a few exceptions who really don’t deserve a call up.
Good, unexpected call-ups: Babis Lykogiannis (Sturm Graz), Panagiotis Retsos (Olympiakos), Manolis Siopis (Panionios), Dimitris Kourmbelis (Panathinaikos) & Tasos Donis (Nice).
Poor call ups – Marios Oikonomou (Bologna), Maniatis (No club), Tziolis (Hearts), Anastasios Bakasetas (AEK), Dimitris Diamantakos (Karlsruher).
I almost want to put Vasilis Torosidis on the “poor” list but his selection was entirely predictable. I feel his form is on such a downward spiral right now; watching him play in Italy most weeks proves this, as well as poor performances for the Ethniki but I’m certain he will start in Bosnia.
Lykogiannis and Retsos are two new talents to join our defense, Retsos is right footed and very strong for his age who I don’t think would be out of place if needed. Lykogiannis has had an amazing season in Austria, he is a left back who has been known to score the odd goal. I would not be surprised if he started and we saw Skibbe's pet Stafylidis move to the left wing.
No doubt our two world class defenders in Kostas Manolas and Socrates Papastathopoulos will lead the defense and will have a busy night.
The midfield selection will likely prove to be a maddening yet interesting experiment considering the absence of Samaris, in addition to Panagiotis Tachtsidis who is also suspended.
The worst-case scenario will see Maniatis and Tziolis start but surely the German coach has more sense than that. I have a feeling we will see Maniatis and Zeca start; I'll take Zeca given the circumstances but feel we will continue to lose the midfield battle with Mantiatis and again this is where the lack of friendlies and not making the most of the ones we did play is hurting us. I would comfortably select Zeca and Kourmbelis for this, as both play at Panathinaikos and know each other’s style of play very well.
In truth, I would take Retsos and/or Koutroumbis over Maniatis in midfield but we will all have to wait and hope.
One place I hope Skibbe gets in right this time is on the wings... would love to see Giannis Gianniotas on the right wing/midfield role. He has energy, speed and control, he can cause havoc to the Bosnian defense which will be vulnerable--they have some key defenders suspended.
Greece lacks a left winger/midfielder and this is where Giannis Fetfatzidis could have come in handy, or ambidextrous Lazaros Christodoulopoulos but sadly both don't seem to be in the German coach's plans. This makes little sense to me given the amount of players in this squad who are simply making up the numbers.
Kostas Fortounis and Petros Mantalos will more than likely start , with the latter playing on the left, unless Skibbe does not start Gianniotas and puts Stafylidis on the left wing which I am not a big fan of, we saw vs Belgium that he can't put much pressure on the opposition and this is what we need to do.
Kostas Mitroglou will start up front, he is in good form, if we can feed him the ball he can score, hence why Gianniotas, Fortounis and Mantalos should start.
I mentioned Fetfatzidis and Christodoulopoulos, such a shame we don't have these options at least on our bench instead of Diamantakos who has hardly set the German second division on fire with a whopping 5 goals for the season. I would also take either player over Bakasetas who only made sporadic substitute appearances for AEK this year.
One thing is certain; it will be a tense night in the small but intimidating 15,000 stadium in Zenica. I really hope to see the Ethniki come out and play with some enterprise which I am sure will catch the Bosnia's by surprise.
If Bosnia win, our chances of securing a play-off become very hard. A draw and we will control our destiny. If we come away with an away win, millions of Greeks around the globe will almost certainly be jumping and shouting in celebration as at the very least a playoff becomes almost certain.