Golden opportunity gone begging for talented generation
The under 21 Greek national team missed out on a golden opportunity to advance to the 2019 UEFA European Championship, losing 0:2 on aggregate to Austria in the qualifying playoffs. AGONAsport’s Athan Stylos breaks down what went wrong.
Greece U21 missed out on qualification for a major tournament once again, something which further demonstrates the challenging period Greek football currently finds itself in. The last time the Ethniki Elpidon qualified for the European Championship was 16 years ago back in 2002. Many believed coming into the campaign that this would be the ideal opportunity for the talented group to finally an impression, but, unfortunately, it was not meant to be as the team bowed out in the qualifying playoffs after two successive 0:1 defeats to the Austrians.
The failure by Antonis Nikopolidis’ men has led to criticism about his coaching as well as the decisions made to call up some of the younger players to the senior squad during crucial under 21 qualifying matches. The Hellenic Football Federation did not handle the situation correctly, and as a result, this heavily impacted the Elpidon’s qualification campaign.
An example of this is the situation surrounding Olympiacos left-back Kostas Tsimikas. The Olympiacos representative had played for the under 21 team throughout most of the qualifying campaign, however he received a call-up to Michael Skibbe’s senior squad for two UEFA Nations League against Hungary (home) and Finland (away). Although Tsimikas played well on his senior debut, in which he provided an assist to Kostas Mitroglou in Greece’s 1:0 victory against Hungary, he missed out on playing in the U21’s decisive match away to Croatia, a fixture which would determine who would finish top of the group and automatically advance to the 2019 European Championships. Ultimately, Greece lost the encounter 0:2 to Croatia, despite only needed a draw to secure top spot and a place at Euro 2019. The Croats held the better head-to-head advantage (teams played to a 1:1 draw in Thessaloniki) and snatched first place.
The absence of Tsimikas along with prolific striker Efthymis Koulouris in that match played a major role in the defeat, especially when the hard work had already been put in by those players to get into that position with great results earlier in the campaign.
Ethniki Elpidon manager Nikopolidis came under fire for his team selection against the Croatians, with gifted Panathinaikos midfield duo Giannis Bouzoukis and Anastasios Chatzigiovannis held on the bench to start the match. The pair had been in stunning form to start their new season for Panathinaikos in the Greek Super League, and to leave both out of the starting XI was unexpected.
The Super League leading goal scorer, Efthymis Koulouris, is another player who had spent time with both the under 21 and senior teams. Once Michael Skibbe was relieved of his duties, it looked as if the striker, who is on loan at Atromitos from PAOK, would play in the crucial playoffs for the under 21 team against Austria, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, Ethniki Omada manager Angelos Anastasiadis decided to pick Koulouris for the senior team. The decision seemed a bizarre one, especially due to the fact that the Ethiniki’s chances of finishing in top spot of their respective Nations League group were effectively dead.
In the first leg played in Thessaloniki, Koulouris’ absence was severely felt, as Greece U21 contrived to concede a sloppy goal to lose 0:1 after missing plenty of glorious opportunities. Choosing to play without a striker, Nikopolidis made the decision to use Olympiacos midfielder Athanasios Androutsos to lead the attack as opposed to a player like Argyris Kampetsis who would play in a more familiar role. Meanwhile, Koulouris only played 22 minutes for the senior team off the bench against Finland.
After the bitter home loss to the Austrians, panic began to set into manager Nikopolidis, as he contacted newly appointed senior coach Anastasiadis to summon Koulouris to the Elpidon’s squad. The pair came to the conclusion that it would be best for Koulouris to join the under 21 side for the second leg in Austria. However, the move didn’t pay dividends, as the Ethniki Elpidon struggled to create any major chances in the second leg and bowed out with another 0:1 defeat.
In addition to the mishandling of Koulouris and Tsimikas, and the questionable decision and tactics from Nikopolidis, the injuries of Panagiotis Retsos, Konstantinos Mavropanos, and Tasos Donis contributed to Greece missing out on a great chance to qualify for the U21 European Championships.
Following Greece U21s disappointing elimination, it is expected that youngsters Tsimikas, Konstantinos Galanopoulos, Anastasios Chatzigiovannis, Dimitris Limnios, and Koulouris will make the transition to the senior team for the upcoming UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying campaign. Other notable prospects include Lazaros Lamprou, Triantafyllos Pasalidis, Androutsos, Pantelis Chatzidiakos and Dimitris Nikolaou. The combination of those players along with the additions of Mavropanos, Retsos and Donis really makes you think what could have been had Greece qualified for the European championships in Italy/San Marino.