From hope in Zenica, to disaster in Athens
Nick Tsambouniaris looks back on a lost opportunity for the Ethniki, as hope in Zenica has been forgotten after the disaster in Athens.
It was only two and a half months ago that the Ethniki produced a stirring comeback in Zenica to salvage hopes of qualifying for a first major tournament in what will be six years. Dimitris Kolovos’ bullet header in the 85th minute brought about wild scenes on the Greek away bench and there was finally hope moving forward.
Realistically, the cracks were still there as the team trailed by two goals after a horrible start but the manner of the comeback, especially given the magnitude of the match caught the eye. A ‘rivalry’ of sorts has been created with Bosnia due to numerous fiery encounters over the years and many tipped them to be the Ethniki’s biggest threat to second spot.
The “never say die” attitude and fight in the side was reminiscent to old times, despite the clear lack of quality. However, instead of building on this hope, the Ethniki self-destructed and looks set to miss a third successive major tournament.
Taking points off Italy was always going to be tough, but they are no longer the team they once were. In this instance, it was the manner of the defeat which rung the alarm bells. Three sloppy goals were conceded in the first half and there was no fight, desire, direction or quality. The Italians did not need to get out of second gear to notch an easy win. They were slow and poor several times when playing out from the back but the Ethniki did next to nothing.
Disaster came when Armenia arrived in town for the fourth match of qualifying. It was a match like this that was a routine win during the Ethniki’s ‘golden era,’ however, the visitors embarrassed Angelos Anastadiadis’ men. Their game plan was clear from the beginning - sit deep and break with pace on the counter. It worked a treat and things only got worse for Greece when desperation kicked in and more bodies were committed forward.
The Ethniki created more unwanted records at an empty OAKA and gave another minnow a night to remember. The fans have deserted this side and rightfully so. Success has never felt further away and there appears to be no way back. The events that unfolded during these two games against Italy and Armenia reinforce this.
From the outside looking in, it appears Anastasiadis has lost the dressing room. His methods are outdated and this has had a negative impact on the playing group. The substitutes trained on their own during the Armenia debacle and no video analysis work was done on the opposition.
The icing on the cake came after the shocking loss to the determined Armenians, when Anastasiadis stated that the Ethniki lost “as the opposition are better people” and that “God has punished” the team.
The falling out prior to the Italy game with the experienced Vasilis Torosidis would have also left a sour taste among the squad. On top of this, he was the only natural right back apart from the inexperienced Giannis Kotsiras. Torosidis has regressed and his best has passed him by, but with 122 Serie A appearances and over 100 Ethniki caps, he surely had something to offer in terms of experience.
This also begs the question - what about the ‘old guard?’ Kostas Mitroglou was also omitted. A polarising figure to say the least, his 52 goals in 88 Benfica appearances and 16 goals in 50 Marseille appearances may have aided a young and unproven front line. Experienced defenders Kostas Manolas and Sokratis Papastathopoulos clashed with Anastasiadis at the conclusion of the Armenia match over his methods and gave the EPO an ultimatum that either the coach gets sacked or they leave the team.
Alienating your two best centre backs, who have been vital long-term players does not bode well for Anastasiadis’ future (he is out of contract later this year). His tactics and team selections have baffled the majority of fans and the team was predictably torn apart - they conceded six goals in two games against Italy and Armenia! The defensive steek that was a hallmark of this team is long gone. It is just as bad if not worse up the other end of the pitch. More often than not, the team is devoid of ideas in the final third and looks slow, laboured, and predictable. This occurs no matter who is playing up front.
The players should also shoulder a portion of the blame. There is a common conception that too many of them are more fixated on the stereotypical “Instagram, hair cuts, tattoos and holidays in Mykonos.” They do themselves no justice at times either. Dimitris Siovas approached Anastasiadis prior to the Italy game and made it clear that he had never played at left back. It was a fair call, but any strong team culture involves all players playing for the shirt and not questioning any of the coach’s decisions for the good of the team. However, this Ethniki has no identity.
Above all, the EPO should cop most of the blame. Greek football fans around the world deserve better. An endless list of poor decisions have set the Ethniki back to unseen lows. After all, they hired Anastasiadis, who has seemingly been out of touch for years (the one year contract showed they had no faith in him). They renewed Michael Skibbe’s contract after a failed FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign (the reduced salary showed they had no faith in him). They decided to move qualifiers to Pankritio to bring the fans back to the games, only to renege on this and keep all remaining UEFA Euro 2020 qualifiers at OAKA (as it seems now).
These issues of such incompetence go beyond the coach and players, and are symbolic of the issues seen in Greece on the whole. The issues in Greek football and the Ethniki are a microcosm of Greek society.
That late comeback in Zenica was merely another false dawn, and there is a lot of soul searching left to be done on all levels.