By Mark Robinson
Tonight’s second Euro 2004 quarter-final sees holders France start as overwhelming favorites as they take on Group A runners-up Greece in Lisbon’s Jose Alvalade stadium.
France finished top of Group B despite failing to reach their high standards of the qualifying campaign, and they will look for an improved display as they attempt to cement a place in the last four of the competition.
Greece’s German coach Otto Rehhagel will be hoping to mastermind another upset, having already witnessed his team overcome Portugal on the opening day of the tournament. On that occasion the Greeks were not given much hope in the build up to the game, but produced arguably the finest performance and result in the national team’s history. Only a repeat of such heroics will prevent them from exiting the finals this evening – they have never beaten France in six previous attempts.
Rehhagel will probably return to his tried-and-trusted 4-4-2 formation for tonight’s clash, after an experiment with three strikers in the final group game against Russia backfired and led to a 2-1 defeat. Rehhagel was keen to emphasise the need for his side to produce the fighting qualities shown against the hosts as he addressed the media yesterday afternoon.
“We will go in enjoying ourselves, happy to be playing the best, but we will play so that all of Greece can say that we fought like heroes,” he said.
“The French are amazing players with extraordinary skills, and for us it will definitely be a big challenge.”
Bolton’s Stelios Giannakopoulos is the main injury worry for Rehhagel, and it looks unlikely that he will recover from a calf strain in time for this evening’s game. There was, however, better news for Rehhagel concerning centre half Traianos Dellas, who appears to have recovered from a back injury. His fitness is certainly a crucial issue for the Greeks as their defence, of which Dellas is an integral part, has been one of the most impressive in the tournament.
Zisis Vrysas will serve a one-match ban after picking up two yellow cards. His place alongside Angelos Charisteas in attack looks likely to be given to star striker Demis Nikolaidis, whose injury problems have meant that he is yet to start a match for the Greeks at the tournament so far. His match fitness is improving, and it appears that Rehhagel will be happy to risk the Atletico Madrid striker this evening in what is undoubtedly Greek football’s biggest ever game.
Internazionale’s Georgios Karagounis should return to the Greece midfield after also sitting out the final group game through suspension. His fellow midfielders will need to be in their very best form tonight, as they seek to cut off the supply line to France strikers Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet. Subduing the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Robert Pires is not an easy task, but AEK Athens’ Vassilis Tsiartas revealed that the Greek quartet will not be overawed by the task ahead.
“Every team has possibilities, and so do we,” he told the press on Thursday.
“They have great players and a great midfield, but if you go into the game thinking you have no chance then you will definitely lose,” he added.
“A lot of things have changed in football. There is not such a huge difference between nations. The pressure is on the big teams, such as France, to prove that they belong where they are.”
Rehhagel stressed the point that Greece will need to be at their very best to progress this evening, but also pointed out that his side have already exceeded expectations and will therefore enter the match without any fear.
“We have to be fully concentrated as we are playing the European Champions,” he warned.
“Some of the French players are exceptional and are in their prime. It’s up to us to do the best we can and prove why we reached the quarter finals.”
“We will have to control the ball in midfield to dictate the pace of the game. But I am not worried, it is France who will be worried,” he claimed.
“We have already won everything we could have dreamed of – we don’t have anything to lose now and that makes us dangerous opponents for them.”
It appears ominous for the surviving nations at Euro 2004 that holders France remain unbeaten after three games, despite not hitting anywhere near top gear. French coach Jacques Santini is happy that his team have progressed without playing their best football, and remains confident that his team can make it right through to the final in Lisbon on July 4th.
“We came here to retain the title,” he revealed on Wednesday.
“We have played three games and I’m confident that we will play three more. I must admit that there are things that can be improved upon, but we will work this out. We’re getting better in every game so far.”
However, despite Santini’s optimism regarding the final stages of the competition, he insisted that he and his players would not be underestimating the challenge that Greece will provide this evening. The former Lyon coach identified both their defeat of the Portuguese in the tournament’s opening game, and also the fact that the Greeks qualified from Group A ahead of much fancied Spain.
“We will not underestimate Otto Rehhagel’s team,” he said yesterday.
“This quarter-final will be as tough against Greece as it would have been against Portugal or Spain. Everybody tipped Portugal and Spain, but it was Greece who progressed,” he continued.
“Also, before the tournament, everyone asked who would join Italy in qualifying from Group C – so we must be cautious.”
Chelsea midfielder Claude Makelele played down the criticism that France have received within their own country at Tuesday’s press conference. The French media have been largely unimpressed by Les Bleus in Portugal so far, but Makelele revealed that the squad are not worried and that they are merely victims of their own success. He did, however, also reveal that the urgency levels have now increased as the tournament reaches the knockout stage.
“It’s normal that some people are critical of us, as they have come to expect so much after our success in the last few years,” he said.
“But in some ways they are right – we must again start playing the football that we know we are capable of now we are in the knockout stage as there are no more second chances.”
The main injury worry for France this evening surrounds Arsenal midfielder Patrick Vieira, after he missed two training sessions this week with a strained thigh muscle. Vieira picked up the injury during the 3-1 victory over Switzerland on Monday night, and Santini will not risk him unless his fitness is conclusively proved. Roma’s Olivier Dacourt, who has featured in France’s last two games, will deputise for the Arsenal captain alongside Makelele if necessary.
More contentious is the debate raging in France concerning David Trezeguet and Louis Saha. Trezeguet’s potentially explosive partnership with Thierry Henry has thus far failed to gel, and the French press appear to be campaigning for the inclusion of Manchester United’s Saha in place of Juventus striker Trezeguet.
Saha looked particularly sharp when he was introduced for the last 20 minutes against Switzerland, in what was his first taste of a major tournament. He laid on a goal for Henry and crafted himself a couple of half chances in what was a fine cameo performance. It appears unlikely that Santini will want to disrupt the partnership as the finals reach the knockout stage, but if Trezeguet fails to respond to the pressure then Saha may well play an important role from the substitute’s bench this evening.
Veteran skipper Marcel Desailly looks likely to miss out again tonight, as Santini is expected to pick what he now recognises as his first choice back four. Liliam Thuram and Mikael Silvestre will resume their budding partnership in central defence, with William Gallas and Bixente Lizarazu occupying the full back berths. As a consequence, the mercurial Zinedine Zidane will wear the captain’s armband once again. Right back Willy Sagnol will miss the rest of the tournament with a broken arm.
Arsenal superstar Henry, who scored twice against the Swiss to silence his detractors, claims that France’s perceived lack of form is not worrying the squad, and that they remain as confident as ever in anticipations of the challenges ahead.
“Things are different nowadays,” he said when asked why France have had more difficulty in breaking down opponents at Euro 2004.
“Our opponents now take time to study our game, and so we have lost the ability to surprise people.”
“But that is no reason for us to pack our suitcases and go home. We must find alternative solutions, and this evening I am sure that we will,” he predicted.
France: Barthez; Gallas, Thuram, Silvestre, Lizarazu; Pires, Dacourt, Makelele, Zidane; Henry, Trezeguet
Greece: Nikopolidis; Seitaridis, Kapsis, Dellas, Venetidis; Tsiartas, Zagorakis, Katsouranis, Karagounis; Charisteas, Nikolaidis
Referee: Anders Frisk (Swe)