Where To From Here After The Croatia Debacle

Where To From Here After The Croatia Debacle

by Nick Tsambouniaris

AGONAsport’s Nick Tsambouniaris looks at the coaching situation with the Ethniki and proposes valuable options for Skibbe’s possible replacement.  

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Now that the dust is beginning to settle on our Ethniki’s playoff loss to Croatia and the realisation is slowly sinking in that we will be missing back to back major tournaments, as well as our first FIFA World Cup since 2006, one must begin to wonder what the Ethniki (and in particular those running the show at the EPO) need to do in order to reinvigorate the squad to ensure this does not happen again.

Close enough is not good enough. The overall performance against a Croatian side facing off-field issues of its own was extremely difficult to fathom, especially after our big 1-1 draw in Brussels earlier this year which put us in a great position to qualify. Rather than conjuring up the fighting spirit we all wanted to see, we bottled under pressure and it was a meek surrender.

The first leg in Zagreb highlighted the enormous issues facing the team for a long time, where Michael Skibbe paid the price for poor tactics and shocking squad selections. Playing out of form players who cannot start at club level, on top of others out of position it was never going to end well. Perennial underperformers Tziolis, Tzavellas and Maniatis are hopefully done. Fortounis and Mitroglou need a reality check. Karnezis and Stafylidis (played out of position again like Zeca) need regular playing time. Samaris showed again why many believe he is not cut out for this level.

In the second leg where we needed goals, we barely threatened as the visitors came closest to scoring. Much like the Estonia game, Croatia knew they could sit deep to get a result as we struggle to break down packed defences. This comes down to Skibbe as the same lineups and tactics that limped us over the line in our group were exposed. Players that can make a difference such as Gianniotas and Pelkas were largely ignored. Playing Mantalos in his natural position when fit would also help.

Skibbe is responsible for all of this and for me his position is untenable. Upon reflection were our performances much better in comparison to the horror of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign? We could not beat Estonia at home, a mediocre Bosnian side twice, mauled in Zagreb and relied on a lot of luck to beat Cyprus on both occasions.

As a result, I believe the EPO should be looking elsewhere for alternatives. I am also of the opinion that the possible replacement must also be Greek or have a sound knowledge of Greek football. There are a few reasons for this. It is well known that the EPO interferes in squad selections, so a foreign manager like Skibbe would be backed into a corner. We saw this in the past when former Real Madrid manager Bernd Schuster walked away from negotiations when he found out his assistant would be chosen for him.

Consequently, if the EPO was to act there would be numerous options that I believe would achieve better results. APOEL manager Giorgos Donis is perhaps the most well-credentialed, having had a long coaching career across the globe and faring reasonably well in Greece. Marinos Ouzounidis has done nothing short of an outstanding job at a struggling Panathinaikos, often acting as manager, mentor, motivator, board member and scout. This would seem like a natural progression as he has coached Xanthi, Panionios, and now the Greens. He would have his work cut out for him but is he ready for the step up yet? 

After leaving Panathinaikos, Yannis Anastasiou has managed in other European leagues but has not tasted any notable success. Euro 2004 legend, Traianos Dellas would instantly command the respect of the playing group and has ample experience as a manager in Greece. Then there is a less realistic option in the form of Ange Postecoglou who has just guided Australia to another FIFA World Cup finals appearance with a limited side. We would see improved attacking displays and more passion but even though his future is up in the air, it is still unlikely he would make the switch at this stage. Another possibility is former Olympiakos man, Michel, who is under pressure at Malaga. He knows Greek football inside out and oversaw a successful period at the Reds.

For me all of these options would have done a better job than Skibbe and his archaic setup over the two legs against Croatia, and in the future going forward. I hope the EPO knows there are candidates available and do not just keep Skibbe for the sake of it. However the EPO themselves are also to blame in this mess. Constantly meddling with selections gives the impression that it is a boys club, and a failure to schedule friendlies saw our ranking FIFA ranking drop which in turn made us an unseeded team in the playoff draw, and prevented Skibbe the opportunity to experiment more with the squad at his disposal.

Lessons need to be learnt in order to face the reality and qualify for Euro 2020. Time is up our sleeve and with the right choices it is very achievable. I also believe that we have a fairly talented playing pool to choose from. I do not expect us to play like tiki taka or like a Brazil, but it is 2017 and we can play functional football with a balanced team. This should be the expectation moving forward.

by Nick Tsambouniaris
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