Greece’s coach sticks with tried and tested squad for Saturday’s Euro 2004 decider

Just days ahead of Greece’s crucial Euro 2004 concluding qualifier against Northern Ireland in Athens this Saturday, where victory would hand Greece a place in next summer’s finals, coach Otto Rehhagel yesterday described the upcoming encounter as Greek soccer’s «most important moment in the past decade.» Greece, a minor international player, has only qualified for the Euro finals once before, in 1980, and also reached the World Cup finals in 1994, before being swiftly ousted. «It’s an historic moment, the most important in the past decade, and the players understand that they can become a part of history,» Rehhagel said. «If we win, I’d like to leap 3 meters high, but I’ll only manage to reach half a meter,» joked the long-retired player-turned-coach while indulging in a little stress-relieving humor ahead of the make-or-break game. Greece leads Group 6, a point ahead of second-placed Spain, with a round of play remaining. Should Greece match, or better, Spain’s result in Armenia, also on Saturday, it will have guaranteed its finals berth. Greece has won five consecutive games without conceding a goal. Rehhagel said that qualification for the Euro 2004 finals would offer impetus for future improvement in Greek soccer. «If we manage to qualify, we will push ahead infrastructural improvement work that will provide the younger players of tomorrow with the opportunity to match the accomplishments of their idols,» noted Rehhagel. The national team’s German coach, who named his squad for Saturday’s clash on Monday, confirmed the loss of injured defender Sotiris Kyrgiakos, out for the season after damaging his knee in Panathinaikos’s Champions League match last week. Rehhagel retained several players who are out of favor at club level for the decisive encounter. Defender Nikos Dabizas keeps his place despite having played for Newcastle United’s reserves this season. Dabizas is likely to partner Traianos Dellas, who has yet to play in Serie A this season for his club AS Roma, in central defense. Rehhagel also selected Giorgos Karagounis, usually a substitute for his club Inter Milan, and striker Demis Nikolaidis, whose bit-part role at Atletico Madrid is not expected to prevent him starting on Saturday either. Midfielder Angelos Basinas returns after a month out with a knee injury. Responding to questions about his heavy reliance on players that are either returning from injury or getting insufficient club-level playing time, Rehhagel noted that he was not willing to experiment with a successful formula. «I’ve believed in this roster, was convinced that these players could succeed, and believe that they will bring grand success on Saturday,» Rehhagel said. Squad member Angelos Haristeas warned that Northern Ireland, last in Group 6, would be no walkover. «I believe that Northern Ireland will come to Athens to battle earnestly and fairly for victory,» Haristeas said. «This is our opponent’s approach and we must remain focused.» (Kathimerini, AP, Reuters)