Everything was lost in the 12th of 180 minutes against Croatia (Part 1 of 2)

Everything was lost in the 12th of 180 minutes against Croatia (Part 1 of 2)

by Sarantos Kaperonis

AGONAsport’s Sarantos Kaperonis takes a look back at the World Cup Qualifying Playoffs against Croatia and what was at fault over the two legs in part one of a two part blog.

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In my piece before the start of World Cup Qualifying over a year ago, I stated that the Ethniki would have to overcome its greatest obstacle yet and forget the last two years to achieve qualification this year. Was I being overly optimistic? Possibly, but not within reach. Yes, starting at rock bottom (last in Euro 2016 qualifying and two losses to the Faroe Islands) and coming out to qualify for the World Cup sounds like an extremely far-fetched target. However, our national team houses the talent to do just this and they came just short of it.

Finishing second in a qualifying group that contained a world power house nation, like Belgium, and a highly talented Bosnian squad, is successful when looking back at the last two years. However, no fan of the Ethniki, should use the last two years as a benchmark to rate the success of our national team. We are much better than that. Yet, we cannot disregard the fact that Greece did hit rock bottom from 2014 through 2016. 

In our World Cup Qualifying group, there is no doubt that Greece deserved second spot ahead of Bosnia and behind Belgium. Yes, we did need a gift from Cyprus and Belgium to surpass the Bosnians, however on the contrary, the Bosnians also needed gifts from Estonia and Belgium to jump ahead of us into second for a short period of time. Bosnia conceded eight goals in two games versus Belgium (including a 4-0 loss in Brussels) while the Ethniki proved their talents in Brussels in a 1-1 draw and narrow 1-2 defeat in Greece. In our head-to-head matches against Bosnia, Greece should have won in Bosnia and Bosnia should have won in Greece. In the end, two draws were justifiable. 

We rightfully entered the playoffs as the seventh best runner-up; however the horrors of the Euro 2016 Qualifying Campaign still haunted us this go around as we were unseeded in the playoff draw, and were paired with the Croatians, a nation full of world-class players (in the previous two qualifying playoffs in 2009 and 2013, Greece were seeded in the draw). The odds were surely against Greece, however optimism remained that the national team could pull off the complete comeback and qualify for the 2018 World Cup. 

The First Leg in Zagreb

Before the first leg in Zagreb, Greece was plagued with injuries (Petros Mantalos, Tasos Donis, Vasilis Torosidis, and Sokratis Papastathopoulos). The Borussia Dortmund man was still not at 100%, but could not miss the crucial matches against Croatia and proved to be one of Greece’s most valuable assets over the two legs. On top of that, FIFA handed Kostas Manolas a ridiculous suspension, which came three weeks after his alleged offense and only days before the first leg matchup against Croatia. 

Although these absences bring up plenty of “what if” scenarios, Greece failed miserably in Zagreb to fall 4-1, a result that essentially left no hope for Greece in the return leg. What's at fault in the 4-1 defeat? Some falls on the absences of four key players, some on tragic individual mistakes, and a lot on Michael Skibbe’s picks and tactics before kick off. 

Everything fell apart in the 12th minute when Tzavellas’ back pass was poorly controlled by Karnezis. This resulted in a penalty, and was slotted home by Real Madrid star, Luka Modric. Greece’s game plan was simple: Frustrate the Croatians as much as possible until they fall apart. Yet, the 12th minute marked the end of this.

Croatia is talented, but when things do not go their way, they begin to fall apart as seen in their 1-1 draw against Finland, which sent them to the playoffs. Karnezis’ awful mistake allowed Croatia to grab an early goal and from there, they had the confidence to cruise to an easy 4-1 victory. 

We had hope when the injured Sokratis Papastathopoulos jumped over everyone to turn in Fortounis’ corner, pulling one back for the Ethniki, but then Skibbe’s selections took their toll as Perisic walked the ball into the net three minutes later and re-gave Croatia a two-goal advantage and a confidence boost. At fault for Perisic’s goal? A non-existent left and right wing defensive backs as both Tzavellas and Maniatis failed miserably to stay with their marks not only during the third goal, but the whole time they were on the pitch (Maniatis subbed off for Retsos at halftime).

There is no doubt that Skibbe got it all wrong in the first leg. In addition to the 3-5-1-1 (5-3-1-1) formation, which was never used during qualifying or training before the Croatia matches, players played out of position, a common theme in this qualifying round. Zeca, who is Greece’s best defensive midfielder, was played on the wing (which worked against Belgium), allowing Modric and Rakitic to freely move by Tziolis and Samaris. Tziolis should not be on the national team and starting in critical matches against world class midfielders. Zeca’s abilities were wasted on the right flank. 

Yes, childish mistakes proved detrimental to Greece in the first leg, but Skibbe’s picks and formation ultimately led to the development of these mistakes. Out of form players, like Karnezis and Stafylidis, who have played minimal minutes at their clubs this season, should not be considered in these kind of matches. 

It would be absurd to ask Skibbe to make drastic changes in the two most important matches of qualifying (ex. pulling out Karnezis and playing Anestis). However, AEK’s Giannis Anestis, who kept AC Milan goalless twice in the Europa League, should have been given a start in September or in October’s qualifiers, to be better prepared for November matches. The also applies to others that are in-form at the club level (Bakakis, Fetfatzidis, Pelkas), while those that are riding the bench with their clubs, should have been slowly transferred to the Greek bench (ex. Stafylidis, Karnezis, Tziolis etc) and out of the starting line-up. While I am not in Skibbe’s shoes, the obvious must be stated.

Fernando Santos, who was one of Greece’s most successful coaches, put it simply to his players: “If you don't play with your clubs, you will not play with the national team.” Although Santos also implemented the “closed club” philosophy, which Skibbe has taken to an extreme, he did chose in-form players for the Greek starting eleven and it paid off as he took the Ethniki to Euro 2012 and 2014 World Cup. At both events, he led Greece to the knockout stages of the competitions. I agree with the closed club mentality, but with Santos’ stipulation of “You must play for your club to play on the national team.”    

Things we Learned in the Return Leg in Greece

We all knew that 3-0 scoreline was nearly impossible before kick-off. Greece needed a quick goal to spark some hope, but it never came and Croatia comfortably held onto their advantage. Yet, there are few takeaways: 

First, if Manolas was in for the first leg, things would have been different. Would Greece have won? Probably not. Would they have conceded four goals? Probably not. Manolas is one of the best defenders in Europe and his speed and ability to kill the opposition’s attack is truly remarkable. His absence was costly.

Second, we need to revolutionize our attacking display. Greece has never been a strong team on the attack and we have always piggybacked on our unbelievable defense. But, in a match where Greece needed three goals, the national team created one shot on target in 90 minutes of play. You can’t make up a 3-goal deficit this way. Mitroglou is a world class striker, one of the best in Europe; yet the inability of our midfield to make use of him is worrisome. 

During this qualifying campaign, we lacked class midfielders like Karagounis or Katsouranis that led Greece to their amazing 10 years from 2004-2014. However, there are better options that must be looked at for future matches as opposed to players like Tziolis and an out-of-form Samaris or Tachtsidis. They include Panathinaikos captain Dimitris Kourbelis, Panionios power-house Manolis Siopis, and AEK’s upcoming star Kostas Galanopoulos. Pair anyone of these players with Carlos Zeca, and the midfield improves drastically.  

For years, we lacked wingers as we played with Samaras and Salpingidis, who both helped lead the Ethniki to great success over the years. They were naturally strikers. Do we have options for the future? Of course. Gianniotas proved that in the second leg when he came on. The youngster was disregarded for much of the campaign (another mistake by Skibbe), but has great potential and agility on the flanks. There is also AEK’s Christodoulopoulos, who is no youngster, but houses great ability and is an experienced player on the national level. Donis is the Ethniki’s biggest attacking hope for the future, and was missed in the playoffs. There are others, including U21 nationals, that haven’t been looked at yet, but could prove worthy options.  

As Greek fans, we are disappointed that we won't have our Ethniki to cheer for in the World Cup. We rightfully bowed out to Croatia in the playoffs. Many mistakes were made in the two matches and throughout the qualifying campaign. However, lets not forget the progress that was made post the 2014-2016 era. We are not starting from the ground up, but we must keep building up our team. While Skibbe may have made mistakes during this campaign, we need to continue to build with the German boss and give him two more years to prove his worth. We are on the right path once again and just came up short from an unthinkable comeback. 

To be continued in part 2…

by Sarantos Kaperonis
Image Source: Onsports.gr
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