Greek fate rests on Nigeria game

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa (AP) – Greece and Nigeria are in the same predicament ahead of their World Cup Group B match today: lose and they’re almost certain of a first-round exit. But the position of Otto Rehhagel’s team is even grimmer. Nigeria only conceded one goal and went close to scoring a late equalizer in an opening loss to Argentina, while the Greeks lost 2-0 to 2002 World Cup semifinalists South Korea and still have to face Lionel Messi and the Argentina squad in their last group game. Rehhagel led Greece to an unexpected European championship title in 2004 with a defense-first philosophy and that’s their emphasis again. «The team has to have a defensive capability in modern football,» goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis said. «The whole team has to shut down spaces – so it’s not an issue of individual players or the defense alone.» After the loss to the South Koreans, where Greece failed to stick to its plans and conceded a crucial early goal when they failed to clear a free kick, Rehhagel warned his players to follow his instructions or they’d be headed home. It seems they were listening. Striker Dimitris Salpigidis has been also championing the defense-first mind-set, saying, «Good teams are defined by a strong defense, but they’re are able to score when the opportunity arises. That’s what we have to do.» Greece is still searching for its first World Cup goal, having conceded 10 goals and failing to score in three losses in its only other trip to the finals in 1994, and needs to find the back of the net in South Africa to maintain hopes of advancing. If Nigeria’s opening performance against Argentina is any indication, Greece has a rough road ahead. The Africans played well against Diego Maradona’s talented squad. «They managed to trouble Argentina in their opening game,» Salpigidis said. «Nigeria is a very good team – we’ve seen them on tapes – they are fast and play with high quality. We must concentrate for the entire 90 minutes and be totally prepared.» The Nigerians can’t afford to lose, either, and have secluded themselves north of Durban this week to focus entirely on soccer. Nigeria is not quite the dynamic team which lived up to its nickname of the «Super Eagles» in the 1990s, but coach Lars Lagerback’s squad in South Africa has plenty of talent, even without injured Chelsea midfielder John Obi Mikel. Goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama was impressive against Argentina, making a number of solid saves to hold Messi and Co to just one goal in a performance that won him the player-of-the-match award. Everton striker Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Wolfsburg forward Obafemi Martins provide strength and speed up front, while Peter Osaze and Chinedu Obasi add pace and flare from the wings. Lagerback also has veteran striker Nwankwo Kanu and Victor Obinna at his disposal. The Greece backline should get a boost with the return of Bologna defender Vangelis Moras, who is expected to be fit after being sidelined with a lingering groin injury. But the speed of the Nigerians could cause problems for Greece, which has an aging squad known more for its tactical prowess than its pace. Lagerback, who led his native Sweden to the World Cup in 2002 and 2006, only took over the Nigerian national team in February, but he seems to have succeeded in harnessing the squad’s ample talent in his short stint in charge. «Lagerback is a very good coach, with a good track record at many big tournaments,» Salpigidis said. «But I hope it’ll be us smiling at the end of the game and not him.»