The Skibbe Test
by Greg Gavalas
Michael Skibbe took over the Greek National Team job in in October 2015 and now faces his and the team’s biggest test yet, their quest to get back to the big stage that is the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
In their way on the weekend is the mighty Belgium, ranked 5th best in the world and with a roster good enough to not only qualify comfortably from our qualification group but be a real threat in Russia where the World Cup will be played.
The Belgium team is not short of inform and lethal players with the likes of Romelu Lukaku of Everton, Dries Martens of Napoli, Kevin De Bruyne of Manchester City and the return of Radja Nainggolan from Roma, the Ethniki needs to be on top of their game but that’s what worries me.
Whilst the team has had some good results under Skibbe like away wins over the likes of Australia and Holland, the team has not gelled to any great degree in most games under Skibbe, only in the 4-3 win over Hungary back in October 2015 did we see flowing football, in that match we played with 3 central attackers who fed Kostas Mitroglou with good opportunities and we took other good chances.
The fall back is we still concede easy goals which have sadly been a feature of the team since the great run under Fernando Santos finished at the end of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.
Coming into the match with Belgium on Saturday night there are some key points we need to consider.
Belgium, who was ranked best team in the world from November 2015 to May 2016 is a team that will not let us off the hook, they demolished Bosnia 4-0 in the corresponding game in October.
Greece started the qualification phase much better than the disgraceful Euro 2016 qualifiers, truth be told though, it couldn’t get any worse. Needless to say, we have three wins over Gibraltar (1-4), Cyprus (2-0) and Estonia (0-2) and a draw (1-1) against Bosnia. Between the win over Estonia and draw with Bosnia we lost our first game in some time to Belarus in Piraeus in a game that I think paints a picture of our reality.
Our first three wins over modest opposition still saw the Greek team struggle for fluent football, now whilst we know we don’t play a fast or flowing game, the truth is even the likes of Cyprus, Estonia and Belarus showed better football play through defense and midfield . Bosnia dominated the first half against us and whilst the Ethniki showed some fight in the second half it was a thunderbolt shot from Giorgos Tzavellas in the last play of the game that saved the team from a devastating defeat at home after the Bosnian’s missed some great chances in the first half.
The biggest challenge for Greece is the midfield, for the first time in I can say decades we are really struggling in the holding midfield position which is a big reason why teams like Estonia and Belarus are outplaying us.
We have tried several combo’s with Giannis Maniatis, Alexandros Tziolis, Panagiotis Tachtsidis and Andreas Samaris but none of the guys have taken charge of a game.
One of my biggest complaints with Skibbe is the lack of discovery in this position, these four players have been tried over and over, in friendlies even, and we have the same result.
If we had beaten Belarus and played well, I would have been confident to some extent but we went for Tziolis (who was not playing with his club at the time) and Samaris (who was on the bench at Benfica) in a combo that failed yet again, could I have told Skibbe about this before the game? Indeed.
Against Bosnia, we saw the Maniatis and Samaris combo which again failed to impose itself on the game and had Bosnia do what they like for much of the game.
Maniatis-Tachtsidis vs Estonia, much the same although the latter did help the team with his passing.
I actually think Tachtsidis can help the team but the Cagliari midfielder needs runners around him, he is not very mobile but his vision and passing are valuable, a combination of him and Manolis Siopis would have been great to see at some stage. Siopis has been a star with Panionios and is a runner with mongrel the team can do with, however I can’t see this happening against Belgium.
A big talking point has been the inclusion of Panathinaikos captain Carlos Zeca’s in the team, the Portuguese born midfielder has been called up by Skibbe in a controversial choice. It can be argued Zeca, 28 years old is not in that great a from and his high attention to yellow cards could be costly at national level but all is to be revealed. Some will say it could have been an opportunity to call up Dimitris Kourbelis instead who is 23 and also at Panathinaikos.
So you see our dilemma… on the eve of the huge test against Belgium we have a midfield that has not fired and without a comfortable combo that can protect the defense to some extent and help the attacking play, which combo Skibbe goes with will be telling and face a huge challenge.
I don’t think we will see Tziolis and Maniatis start, if we do, goodnight Irene. I think Samaris will start and either, Tachtsidis and Zeca alongside him.
The backline is more settled, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Kostas Manolas will be the two center backs with Vasilis Torosidis on one side and Kostas Stafylidis or Tzavellas on the other side.
Skibbe is a big fan of Stafylidis and he has been in great form for his German club Augsburg and scoring regularly, he is however a left back and for some unknown reason Skibbe plays him in the middle sometimes, leave him on the left back or wing. The 23 year old has scored some great goals in Germany the last couple of weeks, a great goal on Saturday would be something.
In the attack and where the magic happens we have seen some good additions to the team and some “same old” options which I feel we could have made better off.
I’ll start with the bad and go to the good.
Dimitris Diamantakos and Tasos Bakasetas are coming off the bench with their clubs in Germany and Greece.
Diamantakos has been in ok form but has not hit any great heights in the German 2nd division with Karlsruher SC scoring 5 goals in 24 appearances.
Bakasetas has had much playing time in for the Ethniki of late and has really failed to make an impact. He has been a bench player at AEK for most of the season and not in great form.
Two players we could have brought into the National Team scene instead would have been Lazaros Christodoulopoulos of AEK and Giorgos Giakoumakis of Platanias in the Greek Super League, the 22 year old striker has scored 10 times and looks to be a great talent.
On a positive note, it’s great to see the Olympiacos due of Thanasis Androutsos and Giorgos Manthatis in the squad, these two players have shown great promise in attack and is what we need.
Androutsos is a central attacking midfielder who will provide a great option and competition for teammate Kostas Fortounis and Petros Mantalos.
Manthatis is a much needed option out wide and showed in the away UEFA Europa League match against Besiktas the occasion did not get the better of him.
I think both guys can help, especially if the attack is not firing, along with Giannis Gianniotas who is another weapon we can’t let waste away.
So where does that put us…
Given the lack of opportunity to other players by Skibbe, I can’t see the better call ups starting given the magnitude of the match.
I believe Kapino will start in goal and that’s good.
We need some spark in attack so with Mitroglou up front I hope to see Fortounis, Mantalos, and Gianniotas in the midfield, with Mantalos in the center (he is not good out wide).
What Skibbe does with the two central mids is key, with time I would have tried Siopis and Tachtsidis there as I said before but that won’t happen. I foresee Samaris and Tachtsidis or Zeca but if you look at experience Maniatis may also get the start and if so let’s hope they have the game of their lives.