To start, here’s the fixture schedule for Group D (all times Eastern):
Spain vs. Russia (Noon; Tivoli-Neu Stadion, Innsbruck)
Greece vs. Sweden (2:45; Wals Siezenheim Stadium, Salzburg)
Sweden vs. Spain (Noon; Tivoli-Neu Stadion, Innsbruck)
Greece vs. Russia (2:45; Wals Siezenheim Stadium, Salzburg)
Greece vs. Spain (2:45; Wals Siezenheim Stadium, Salzburg)
Russia vs. Sweden (2:45; Tivoli-Neu Stadion, Innsbruck)
2004 marked the first time that Greece had qualified for the European Championships in 24 years, so expectations were understandably tempered. Under the helm of a German, Otto Rehhagel, however, the Greeks pulled off the shock of all shocks by winning the whole thing, defying odds that had them as 150-1 underdogs to do just that.
Let’s be clear. Greece isn’t a traditional soccer nation and will never have the same prestige and talent that some other European countries do. They have a hard time qualifying for international tournaments, much less doing well in them, and we all know that what Rehhagel’s team was able to accomplish four years ago was a fluke. They didn’t even make it to the World Cup in 2006.
Under Rehhagel, though, Greece will never be blown out in a game and they’ll always have a fighting chance to take a positive result. He is a defensive-minded, disciplined coach whose teams are well-organized and have good camaraderie on and off the field. None of his players stand out that much more so than the others, so there’s never a problem with that “star complex” that we’ve seen with high-profile players like Didier Drogba or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who, as the leader of Sweden’s front line, will be up against the stalwart Greek defense.
Greece breezed through qualifying for this tournament, but there were no other countries that posed any significant threat. The key players on this team are all in their late-20’s or early-30’s, so while they were in their prime in 2004 and in qualifying, I’m not sure how much they have left in the tank for this tournament.
With that said, this team’s strength has never been their pace and athleticism. They’ll slow the tempo down to a stand-still at times. They tackle hard and furiously, and they really try to lock down the middle of the field and make their opponents beat them from the wings.
Antonios Nikopolidis will be in goal and at 36 years of age, probably will be making his last significant international appearances for Greece, so you know he’ll want to go out in style. Much like David James, he can be impenetrable when on the top of his game, but he also is very susceptible to the odd calamity every now and then. He has two impressive, attack-minded full-backs ahead of him — Giourkas Seitaridis on the right, and right-footed Vasilis Torosidis on the left. In the middle, 6’5″ Traianos Dellas and Sotirios Kyrgiakos, only one inch shorter, should win most every aerial battle in the area.
In the midfield, I think we’ll see a compact, three-man group. Benfica’s Kostas Katsouranis is very versatile and has become a good all-around player from his roots as a true defensive midfielder, the captain, Angelos Basinas, is a field general that is also hard-nosed and can tackle, and little Giorgos Karagounis has the most creativity on the team and is great from the set piece.
Up front, Theofanis Gekas, who led the German Bundesliga in the ’06-’07 in goal scoring with 20 and scored 11 this season in 26 league games at Bayer Leverkusen, will play in the middle, Ioannis Amanatidis will be on Gekas’ right and drop deep, and Angelos Charisteas, who scored the winning goal in the Euro 2004 final against Portugal, will drift to the left.
Greece absolutely must get to their third and final group game against Spain with four points already in the bag, because they have absolutely no chance of coming out of that match with anything and four points will be the minimum to progress.
Hiddink is inventive (three different formations with those three nations in the World Cups), charismatic, and popular; he is already in demand as his contract with Russia will expire after this tournament. He led Russia to this tournament from a group that included England, Israel, and Ukraine, so he’s already playing with house money in the sense that Russia was no lock to reach this point, especially having not even gotten to the last World Cup.
Like him, this Russian squad is very underrated and is capable of causing a “surprise”, although calling it that would be a disservice to the Russians and their abilities. Igor Akinfeev is one of the best young goalkeepers in Europe; he plays for CSKA Moscow and had a clean sheet streak of 362 minutes in only his second campaign in the Champions League. At just 22 years of age, he is his nation’s present and future at that position.
Ahead of him is a solid back line, which is laden with competition for three of the four spots. There are the veterans — the Berezutskiy twins and Sergei Ignashevich, each of whom, like Akinfeev, play for CSKA Moscow — who may all start, but a capable, less experienced group made up in part by Denis Kolodin and Roman Shirokov, who plays for current UEFA Cup holders Zenit St. Petersburg, are challenging for starting positions as well. Alexander Anyukov, who also plays for Zenit, is the only sure bet in the back four and will be on the right, and if I had to guess, I would go with experience and familiarity and say that Ignashevich and Alexei Beruzutskiy will be in the center, with Vasili Berezutskiy at left back.
In the midfield, Hiddink has been using two holding midfielders — Konstantin Zyrianov, who scored the second goal in Zenit’s 2-0 victory over Rangers in the UEFA Cup final and the reigning Russian Footballer of the Year, and Igor Semshov. Ahead of those two is a group of three, normally led by an absolutely fantastic attacking midfielder, Andrei Arshavin, another Zenit player, but Arshavin is suspended for the first two group games and his absence will be a huge blow. On the right, the blindingly quick Vladimir Bystrov will give opposing defenses fits all game long, and the creative but more defensive-minded Yuri Zhirkov will play wide left.
On his own up front will be Roman Pavlyuchenko, who has carved out a very successful career in the Russian Premier League and has been either the top goal-scorer or the joint top goal-scorer in the division in the last two years for Spartak Moscow.
Arshavin’s presence will definitely be welcomed back in the third game but until then, Russia will need to find a way to make due. Coming up with four points against Spain and Greece would put them in a terrific position with Arshavin coming back, but three points is more likely. Russia’s last game is against Sweden, and it could be a winner-take-all 90 minutes.
The second half of this preview, covering Sweden and Spain and my final prediction for Group D’s standings, will be up by some point this evening, so make sure to check back later.
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