SPORTS

Rehhagel sets objectives for next month’s crucial clashes

Just weeks away from his next big challenge – two crucial World Cup qualifiers against Turkey and Ukraine early next month – the national soccer team’s coach Otto Rehhagel said the objective would be to pick up four points from the two encounters, which would bolster Greece’s position in second place. On 14 points from seven games of its 12-round group, Greece, competing in Group 2 of the European zone, trails front-runner Ukraine by three points but is two points ahead of Turkey, currently third. «We’re going into these two key matches aiming to take four points. That will see us hold onto and, indeed, cement second place. That’s our general strategy for now,» Rehhagel said in an interview with the World Cup’s official website. The winners of the European zone’s eight groups and two runners-up sporting the best records all qualify automatically for next year’s World Cup finals. The remaining six runners-up will be paired into three home-and-away playoffs for three additional places. Greece travels to Istanbul to meet Turkey on June 4 and then hosts Ukraine at Karaiskaki Stadium four days later. «We know the atmosphere will be hot in Turkey. We have to keep our cool and act smart if we’re to maintain our two-point advantage,» Rehhagel said. «They’re certainly under more pressure in front of their home crowd than we are.» Following a subdued start in its qualifying campaign with a loss in the opening game against Albania in Tirana and a home draw against Turkey, Greece has gradually rebounded to rise to second place in its group. An important draw in Kiev against Ukraine has been followed by four successive wins. Rehhagel attributed his team’s slow start to lack of match practice for the early games. «You need to remember that August is still a vacation month in Greece,» Rehhagel said. «My players turned up in early September 2004 without any kind of preparation… We went and lost in Tirana and dropped two points at home to the Turks. That was a poor start, but the turning point was our draw with Ukraine in Kiev in October. We’ve followed up with four wins from four games and have risen to second place in the group. This is the position we have to defend. Every game is like a final now.» Not long after the Turkey and Ukraine clashes, Rehhagel will take Greece, the European champion, to his native Germany for another engagement, the FIFA Confederations Cup. Greece has been drawn against World Cup holders Brazil, as well as Japan and Mexico. The tournament’s other group is made up of Argentina, Australia, Germany and Tunisia. Asked whether he thought Greece stood a chance against Brazil, a perennial soccer powerhouse, Rehhagel said: «Brazil are obviously an exceptionally tough proposition. But ever since our triumph in Portugal [Euro 2004], we’ve noticed our opponents take a different attitude and pay us a lot more respect. My players have earned that respect, and they deserve it too. Since then, they’ve had to prove they can cope with the title and the recognition. And, in the meantime, we’ve got it well under control.»  Rehhagel, responding to recent reports that certain star players could be missing from Brazil’s squad at the Confederations Cup for a summer break ahead of next year’s World Cup finals, said he would be delighted «to meet a Brazilian team featuring Ronaldo and Ronaldinho,» while adding that the world champion possessed incredible depth. «Brazil could put out three different teams if they wanted to, and each of them would be favorites to win the tournament,» Rehhagel said.