After three weeks and 30 matches, we are back where we started. The final of Euro 2004, sees Portugal face Greece, in a repeat of the opening match of the tournament.
The respective coaches Luiz Felipe Scolari and Otto Rehhagel are the first foreign trainers to take a team to the European Championship final. While that snippet may be of minor historical import in years to come, Euro 2004 is more likely to be remembered for the remarkable performance of the Greeks.
Respected for their tenacity rather than admired for their ambition, this team has been the story of the championships.
While the likes of Italy, France and Spain have underperformed for the second successive tournament and no doubt theses to explain the decline of the traditional superpowers are already being written, nothing should be taken away from the efforts of Rehhagel’s team. They have not arrived at he final because of the failings of others, but by virtue of an impressive collective effort.
Much credit must go to Rehhagel who has outwitted his peers en route to the final. To defeat one of the pre-tournament favourites was an exceptional achievement, but to do it on three occasions demonstrates coaching genius.
True, the purists will struggle to warm to this workmanlike Greek team, but given the resources at his disposal Rehhagel is entirely justified in describing his side’s progress to the final as “miraculous”.
While Greece’s unlikely appearance in the final may represent the story of Euro 2004, Portugal will have their own version to tell. It is a tale of destiny being fulfilled, albeit belatedly.
For Portugal’s golden generation this match represents the culmination of a journey which began when they captured World Youth Cup in 1991. There have been numerous diversions along the way including two semi-final defeats, but the group are finally poised to justify the faith invested in them all those years ago.
Several members of that team including Vito Baia, Fernando Couto, Rui Costa and Luis Figo, are still present in Scolari’s squad for Euro 2004. In fact, Figo stands to equal Couto’s appearance record of 110 caps for his country when takes the field against Greece. For Figo, and in all likelihood for the other golden oldies, the final will mark their final match in Portugal colours.
In Greece, they will be facing a formidable defensive outfit, with a phenomenal work ethic. Self discipline has been a key trait of Rehhagel’s team. Take Seitaridis, the impressive right back, who in the semi-final was content to forego his adventurous forays down the right flank, in order to mark Milan Baros out of the game.
Moreover, Greece have shown a continuity which must make Scolari envious, with five players having played in every minute of Euro 2004. They are Antonis Nikopolidis, Theodoros Zagorakis, Mikhalis Kapsis, Traianos Dellas and Giorgos Seitaridis.
In contrast, Scolari spent the group games chopping and changing his line-up before finally settling on his preferred starting eleven. That meant no place for sacred cows such as Rui Costa or Couto, but given the momentum Portugal have developed since their victory over Spain, there have been few complaints about Scolari’s methods.
Indeed the introduction of Deco, Ronaldo and the hugely impressive Carvalho, have been the making of this team. They still look goal shy up front and Pauletta’s poor form must be a concern for Scolari, but against a Greek team preoccupied with defence, one goal may be enough.
Despite their opening match win over the hosts, there is a mood of apprehnsion in the Greek camp.
“You cannot make comparisons between the opening game and the final,” said defender Traianos Dellas.
“Portugal have changed their team a lot since then and are looking a better side now and I’m sure we’re going to play a team that has a lot of heart.”
Respect is mutual. Portugal midfielder, Maniche, a contender for player of the tournament, has warned the hosts that they must remain patient against.
“We know we’ll need to be on form and mentally strong to win,” said.
“It will take patience. We’ve all seen that Greece are a very compact side, who defend with discipline, but if we stay calm I’m convinced we can win.”
“We are absolutely not the favourites. We have home advantage but England had more fans than us in our match and we still beat them.
“I hope we can win, I think we can win, but we’re not the favourites.
“Everything has changed for both teams because at the start of the tournament Portugal had a lot of expectation and pressure while no-one was expecting us to do well.”
Portugal’s only injury concern is defender Jorge Andrade but he is expected to recover from an ankle injury to partner Ricardo Carvalho in central defence.
Greece are forced into making one change from the side which stunned the Czech Republic in Thursday’s semi-final. Georgios Karagounis is suspended after receiving a yellow card, with Stelios Giannakopoulos expected to deputise.
Portugal: Ricardo; Jorge Andrade, Ricardo Carvalho, Miguel, Nuno Valente; Maniche, Costinha; Luis Figo, Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo; Pauleta.
Greece: Nikopolidis; Seitaradis, Dellas, Kapsis, Fyssas; Zagorakis, Katsouranis, Basinas, Giannakopoulos; Vryzas, Charisteas.
Referee: Merkus Merk (Germany)