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Greece toughens opposition as soccer’s Euro 2004 approaches

The Netherlands and Greece meet tonight in a Euro 2004 warmup that offers an intriguing contest between two of Europe’s small gems: the erratic but explosive offense of the Dutch against the consistently tough Greek defense. While the Dutch can miss the injured Ruud van Nistelrooy and Edgar Davids and still field an all-star team, Greece has only a smattering of players from Europe’s top leagues, notably AS Roma defender Traianos Dellas, Inter Milan midfielder Giorgos Karagounis and Bolton Wanderers striker Stelios Yiannakopoulos. But Dutch striker Patrick Kluivert said Greece under coach Otto Rehhagel has achieved the one element that the Netherlands lacks. «The most important thing for us is to play as a team, we definitely have the talent,» he said, adding, «I think we’ve made progress lately.» Kluivert, who has returned after spending six months sidelined with a knee injury, is likely to start front and center in tandem with Bayern Munich’s Roy Makaay. Dutch coach Dick Advocaat has said that with his preferred striker van Nistelrooy and wingers Arjen Robben and Andy van der Meyde all injured, that lineup makes sense. And «when you have four world-class strikers available, it’s a sin to play with just one,» he said, referring to Kluivert, van Nistelrooy, Makaay and Fenerbahce’s Pierre van Hooijdonk. That means AC Milan’s Clarence Seedorf, who Advocaat has struggled to fit into his lineup, may get a chance to start as attacking center midfielder, a role he relishes. For Rehhagel, whose Greek side has remained unbeaten for over 15 games, including friendly internationals, tonight’s match against the formidable Dutch team comes as part of the German coach’s plan to stiffen competition and put Greece «in the mood» ahead of Euro 2004. «We’re very glad about this friendly match against an opponent the caliber of teams we will confront in Portugal,» Rehhagel told yesterday’s pre-match news conference in Amsterdam. Greece has been drawn against hosts Portugal, Spain, and Russia in Euro 2004’s first phase of group play. He noted that despite the absence of key players, the Netherlands had abundant available talent to fill gaps. Responding to questions on the Greek side’s marked improvement since his takeover, Rehhagel attributed the progress to better cooperation, teamwork and the desire of players to prove their worth in Europe. «When I first arrived, the national team was not the preferred choice of fans who favored their clubs. So we tried to raise the national squad’s standing,» said Rehhagel. «Greece qualified [for Euro 2004] playing in a tough group. We created a good team based on three major Greek teams, Olympiakos, Panathinaikos, and AEK. Greek players were always good as individuals… Now they turn up in the right mood and show great interest in the national team,» he added. The objective for Greece tonight, Rehhagel said, was to avoid losing to the Dutch. Dutch defender Jaap Stam said despite the quality of the Dutch side, they may need to take risks to crack the Greek defense. «We want to solve everything by voetballen,» he said, referring to the Dutch game of passing around, looking for an opening, and maintaining possession at all costs. For Greece, AEK defender Michalis Kapsis is injured, while another defender, Stelios Venetidis of Olympiakos, has returned. (AP, Kathimerini)