Greece’s starters not the best

” Their players have two hands and two legs each, just like ours,» Otto Rehhagel, the German coach of Greece’s soccer team had said of the Spaniards ahead of Saturday’s qualifier for Euro 2004. It turned out that he was spot on about quantity, but he ignored differences in quality. This was proven on the field, where the Spaniards outclassed our players. And we are not just talking about the result (2-0). They outclassed us. The certainty, advertised before the match, that this squad is the most talent-laden in the history of the Greek national team, ultimately became a boomerang, because it created enthusiasm and high hopes among both players and fans, hopes that were deflated early. Moreover, it was a wrong statement. Of course, the result could easily have been different. If Angelos Bassinas’s shot in the 56th minute had found the net instead of bouncing off the Spanish goalpost, Greece would have equalized, and who knows what could have happened then. A different result, however, would have been a mirage and could have fooled us. Yiannis Ioannidis, currently the coach of the national basketball team, is fond of saying, «The players make the coach and the coach makes the team.» But Rehhagel’s team selection and tactics cannot allow him to claim that this is a squad capable of pursuing qualification in the Euro 2004 tournament through to the final qualifying match. You can pump up your players as much as you like, but «onward brave men» was not enough to ensure victory. The national team began Saturday’s match with the full support of 10,000 fans. (We exclude the 4,000 who crowded into the VIP section. They were there for other reasons.) But the midfielders were unable to pass the ball to forwards Angelos Haristeas and Demis Nikolaidis. Vassilis Tsartas is a good player but could not shoulder the entire burden for Greece’s creative play. It is necessary for the more defensive-minded midfielders to be able to dribble past an opponent, occupy an opposing defender and thus help their own forwards find open space for uncontested shots. Theodoros Zagorakis and Costas Constantinidis do not possess these skills. This was made even more obvious in the second half, when they were replaced by Bassinas and Giorgos Karagounis, respectively. Neither was the defense technically capable enough to withstand Spanish pressure. Nikos Dabizas’s only attribute is his rough play against opponents. Takis Fyssas has only a good left shot, which is not enough. Christos Patsadzoglou was far below last year’s form. So there was only Traianos Dellas to run right and left to stop opponents’ passes and get the ball downfield in a logical fashion rather than with desperate long balls. We have already talked about the midfield. It is almost certain that Karagounis’s and Bassinas’s play in the second half must have convinced Rehhagel that he picked the wrong starting lineup. But he also forgot Vassilis Lakis, a player capable of doing Tsartas’s job, left on the bench. The offense was least to blame for the outcome. Even there, however, only the heroic Nikolaidis did his job. Haristeas and Stelios Yiannakopoulos failed to help the midfield and to block the Spanish defenders when they decided to attack. Bringing in Zissis Vryzas, instead of Fyssas, may have made the offense more lively, but playing against Spain with only three defenders is not the best option, as Juan Carlos Valeron, the scorer of Spain’s second goal, showed. We do not mean to say that most national team players are useless. But it would be good for Rehhagel to revise his opinions about those fittest to serve and not insist on the same people. He need only study the game between Greece’s Under-21 squad and Spain on Friday. New Under-21 coach and former player Stelios Manolas does not have Rehhagel’s experience, nor his knowledge of technical matters. But he trusted his instincts and called on the most spectacular among the young players. He was amply rewarded with a 1-0 victory.

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