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Greece cannot afford slip-up in qualifier

With just one point gained from its first two World Cup qualifiers and ill affording another slip-up, Greece will be looking to emerge with maximum points from its next game against Ukraine in Kiev this Saturday. Ukraine shares the lead in Group 2 with Georgia at four points from two games. Greece is sixth in the seven-team group after sensationally losing away to Albania and managing only a 0-0 draw against Turkey in Athens. Greece’s coach Otto Rehhagel, who led the team to last summer’s sensational Euro 2004 triumph in Portugal, told reporters yesterday that his side was now a better-prepared unit than it was for its opening qualifiers. «The prospects ahead of the game against Ukraine are better than they were last time because the [domestic] competitions are now under way. The players lacked playing time against Albania and Turkey,» said Rehhagel. The national team’s second qualifier, against Turkey on September 8, had preceded the Greek league’s opening round by over a week. Rehhagel will rely on the same core of players who led Greece to the European title in July. Dimitris Papadopoulos, a forward with defending champion Panathinaikos, was taken off the pitch on a stretcher with a thigh injury during a league game on Sunday, leaving the defensively minded Greece team with just three forwards. The only other exception is defender Nikos Dabitzas of Leicester, who didn’t make the team. PAOK forward Dimitris Salpingidis has been called up as cover for Werder Bremen’s Angelos Haristeas who has a slight back strain but is expected to play. Goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis will be available regardless of the outcome of a sports court hearing today. He was charged with bringing the game into disrepute after throwing his gloves at the referee at the end of Olympiakos’s 2-1 defeat by Skoda Xanthi last Sunday. With the Greek team flying to Ukraine today, his case will be held in absentia. Greece press officer Michalis Chapidis said any sanctions would not affect Nikopolidis’s place in the team. «Everything will be done through the lawyers. We do not get involved in club matters,» Chapidis said. «He will be on the flight and available for Saturday’s match.» Incidentally, another Olympiakos player, captain Grigoris Georgatos, who is no longer a member of the national team, was handed similar charges in his team’s game against Skoda Xanthi after telling a linesman, during the match, that he would kill him. Georgatos, dropped from the national squad by Rehhagel early in his reign for rebelling, was incensed when the linesman signaled for Xanthi’s first goal even though it was not clear that the ball had crossed the line. Returning to this Saturday’s game, Rehhagel, who described Ukraine as a high-standard team, said Greece would push for victory. «We’ve confronted them twice in the [recent] past for the Euro 2004 qualifiers. They possess players playing with major European clubs and one player, [Andriy] Shevchenko, with special abilities,» Rehhagel noted. Greek defender Michalis Kapsis, who may be given the task of marking the in-form AC Millan striker, underlined the importance of Saturday’s game. «We must win the game… the title of European champion compels us to play only for victory,» said Kapsis, one of Greece’s four key defenders currently playing club-level soccer in leading European leagues. Ukraine will miss defender Yuriy Dmytrulin, who injured his ankle in a recent practice. Coach Oleh Blokhin will, no doubt, rely on Shevchenko and Andriy Voronin, the Bayer Leverkusen forward who scored against Dynamo Kiev in their Champions League game in Kiev last week. (AP, Reuters, Kathimerini)