Just two-and-a-half months as coach of Greece, Claudio Ranieri is heading towards a pair of key Euro 2016 qualifiers that could put his job at risk.
After a disastrous start to his campaign with an opening 1-0 Group F loss at home to Romania last month, the 63-year-old Italian certainly feels the pressure to make good against Finland in Helsinki on Saturday and at home against Northern Ireland next week.
“I hope we win. Both matches are difficult. They are both good teams who fight to the end. We are ready and optimistic about the matches,» Ranieri said.
A sports website in his native country and at least one sports writer in Greece have written that negative results by the Greeks in both matches may lead to Ranieri’s departure.
However sources at the Greek soccer federation have stated that Ranieri has a two-year contract to help the team qualify for the Euro 2016 finals and that there is no question of his replacement, at least at this stage.
He took over as Greece’s coach after his predecessors, Portugal’s Fernando Santos had taken the team to the World Cup 2014 and before that Germany’s Otto Rehhagel led Greece to the Euro 2004 title.
Ranieri, who was sacked from Monaco in May, had very little time to gain knowledge of the players and it showed with the loss to Romania. He was also criticized by the Greek press for his player selections and tactics in the match.
Ranieri called up for the first time 21-year-old Olympiakos forward Dimitris Diamantakos and 23-year-old AEK midfielder Petros Mantalos against Romania but left them out for the matches against Finland and Northern Ireland, before inviting Mantalos again due to an injury crisis in the squad.
He has opted for 22-year-old Panathinaikos forward Nikos Karelis and 21-year-old Sunderland winger Charalampos Mavrias, but also added 20-year-old Fulham defender Kostas Stafylidis and a fourth goalkeeper in 21-year-old Sokratis Dioudis of Club Brugge KV.
Returning after a long absence is 29-year-old PAOK midfielder Alexandros Tziolis but left out of the lineup was 34-year-old Akhisar Belediyespor striker Fanis Gekas who has already scored six goals in his first four matches for his club.
The federation appointed earlier this month former Greece captain Giorgos Karagounis to act as liaison between Ranieri and the players in order to help bridge the communication gap.
Karagounis, who at age 37 retired as a player from the Greek squad with a record 139 caps, knows the Italian well after playing two years at Inter Milan.
With the arrival of Karagounis, it seems that there is a better understanding between Ranieri and the players.
“The atmosphere on the team is excellent, we have trust in each other and we know how important it is for all of us to win the matches against Finland and Northern Ireland,» said Greece captain and PAOK forward Dimitris Salpingidis.
Karagounis said that Ranieri is «cooperative and has impressed me» and that «his experience should bring positive results.”
However Italian sports website tuttomercatoweb said in an exclusive report this week that Ranieri’s job hangs in the balance if Greece loses both matches.
And prominent Greek sportswriter Antonis Karpetopoulos wrote in the Athens daily sports newspaper SportDay last week that a loss against Finland will find Ranieri in a very difficult position.
The federation in a statement said that «Ranieri and his players work very hard and systematically. And that the players will enter the pitch on Saturday to play for their jersey and for their soccer reputation and not for the irrelevant soccer commentators.”
And if the mounting criticism against Ranieri was not enough, the coach has had bad luck with player injuries which have left off the roster Roma defender Jose Holevas, Verona forward Lazaros Christodoulopoulos, Trabzonspor defender Avraam Papadopoulos, PAOK defender Giorgos Tzavellas and Udinese midfielder Panagiotis Kone.
Roma defender Vasilis Torosidis is also on the injured list with the team’s medical staff working on getting him ready for Saturday’s match.
Ranieri led Monaco to second place in Ligue 1 in 2013 and also had spells with Chelsea, Serie A clubs Inter Milan, Napoli, Fiorentina, Juventus, Roma and Parma as well as Spanish outfits Atletico Madrid and Valencia.