Greek squad readies for upcoming hurdles

The national soccer team began final preparations yesterday for two crucial World Cup qualifiers, against Georgia in Tbilisi this Saturday and Albania in Athens next Wednesday. Key central defender Traianos Dellas will not be available for selection for the first encounter. Hoping to be fit for the home clash against Albania, the Roma defender will remain in Athens for specialized therapy. Goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis preventively pulled out of the Greek squad’s training session last night after feeling a slight muscle strain but continued a less rigorous program from the sidelines. The upcoming clashes are of vital importance for Greece’s qualifying campaign for next year’s World Cup finals in Germany. Following a slow start that included a 2-1 loss against Albania in the schedule’s opening match in Tirana and a scoreless draw against Turkey in Athens, Greece, the reigning European champion, has gained ground. It lies second in its group, six points behind Ukraine, with a game in hand. Most recently, Greece defeated respected Denmark 2-1 in Athens. Fans still without tickets and interested in attending next Wednesday’s encounter against Albania at Karaiskaki Stadium should keep in mind that an additional 1,500 tickets go on sale this morning (10 a.m.) in Korai Square in Athens. Holders of state identity cards may purchase up to two tickets. Tickets for the March 30 Albania match have long sold out but the additional 1,500 tickets became available after the Albanian Soccer Federation’s decided to reject its entitled share of tickets for local distribution. According to regulations stipulated by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, national federations of visiting teams have the right to demand a 5 percent share of tickets for local distribution no later than 14 days prior to a match. The Greek squad’s two new members, Fanis Gekas, the league’s top scorer, and Lucas Vyntra, both of Panathinaikos, attracted much of the attention at yesterday’s training session. «It’s an honor for an athlete to play for his national team. That’s the objective at the beginning of a career. It’s the first time I’ve been called up and I’d like to thank Mr Otto Rehhagel and Mr Yiannis Topalidis,» said Vyntra, referring to the national team’s coach and his assistant. Fellow Panathinaikos teammate Yiannis Goumas told reporters that group front-runner Ukraine, Greece, Turkey and Denmark were the group’s contenders for a berth at next year’s World Cup finals. Ukraine leads the European zone’s Group 2 with 14 points from six games. Second-placed Greece is on eight points with a game less. Denmark, Turkey and Albania, also with five games under their belts, are all tied on six points. The group’s winner qualifies automatically while the runner-up proceeds to the playoffs. «Reputations don’t count that much – each game is different. We need to prove we’re better on the pitch,» said Goumas, referring to Saturday’s match in Tbilisi. «Then comes the match against Albania. We were unlucky in the first game, but that was the beginning and we lacked playing time. I believe we’re in better shape now and will win, because we’re a better team than Albania,» he added. Midfielder Stelios Giannakopoulos, an in-form player at English Premier League club Bolton Wanderers, said an away draw against Georgia and a win against Albania would put Greece on the right track. «We can reach top spot in the group as we proved during the Euro 2004 qualifiers that got us to Portugal,» Giannakopoulos said. A slow start then eventually led to the sensational title victory.

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