Win in Malta eases pressure

Greece’s 1-0 win against Malta in Valletta on Wednesday night, which brought the European champions within one point of Group C’s top spot in Euro 2008 qualifying competition, has helped relieve the pressure on a squad that was rattled by last weekend’s 4-1 home thrashing by group leader Turkey. «It was a difficult situation,» said coach Otto Rehhagel following Greece’s win in Valletta. «The defeat against Turkey cost us dearly psychologically. So we had to apply pressure from the very first minute [against Malta].» The home defeat by Turkey prompted critics to lash out at both Rehhagel and his players. The coach was criticized for refusing to inject new blood into his squad, which he has hesitated to alter since Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph. Rehhagel, however, surprised his critics on Wednesday by making six changes to the team that started the match against Turkey. «We’ve got to adjust the starting lineup depending on the needs of each game,» he said following Wednesday’s win. Greece’s main rivals in Group C, Turkey and Norway, drew 2-2 later on Wednesday, a favorable result for Greece. Turkey, undefeated after five rounds of play, leads the group with 13 points from five games. Greece lies second, one point behind, while Norway shares third place with Bosnia-Herzegovina on seven points. The group’s top two teams qualify automatically for the Euro 2008 finals in Austria and Switzerland. In its next assignment, Greece hosts Hungary on June 2. Four days later, Greece will be at home again against Moldova. «The next two games will be pivotal,» said Stelios Giannakopoulos, who was not used by Rehhagel against Malta. «Fortunately, the missed opportunities didn’t cost us,» he added, referring to Greece’s string of wasted opportunities that could have led to a far bigger victory in Valletta. Unruly behavior by Greek fans during last Saturday’s match against Turkey could prompt UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, to ban supporters from attending Greece’s next home qualifier. Turkey, also punished for an outbreak of violence by its players against rival players in a World Cup qualifier against Switzerland, ended a three-game fan-ban against Norway on Wednesday. The ruling also forced Turkey to play these games on foreign territory.

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