By Mark Robinson
Porto’s Estadio do Bessa XXI could be the scene of a famous Iberian double for Greece, in the first of today’s Euro 2004 Group A matches.
Portugal’s opening day conquerors will be looking to complete the double over Iberian opposition when they take on group favourites Spain.
The Greeks’ German coach Otto Rehhagel described his team’s 2-1 win over the hosts as the greatest result in the history of Greek football, and his squad will be looking to pull off an equally stunning result today. Prior to Saturday’s game Greece had never even scored a goal at a major tournament.
The Spanish, so often slow starters at major tournaments, kicked off their own campaign with a workmanlike victory over Russia on Saturday thanks to substitute Juan Carlos Valeron’s second half goal. A win for either side tonight would make them almost certain quarter finalists.
Greece recorded their seventh consecutive victory in competitive matches when they beat the hosts, with goals from Georgios Karagounis and Angelos Basinas from the penalty spot. They will enter tonight’s match full of confidence, especially after their excellent run of results meant that they finished ahead of Spain in the qualifying group and condemned the Spaniards to the playoffs.
But Rehhagel has warned his players against complacency, and urged them to ensure the marvellous result on Saturday is not in vain.
“Beating Portugal was a great achievement but it will mean less if we fail to qualify for the quarter finals,” stated the former Werder Bremen and Kaiserslauten boss.
“We want to take advantage of our win on Saturday so we can advance to the knockout stages. It’s a unique chance we must not miss out on.”
Midfielder Vassilios Tsiartas agrees.
“It’s great that the world is talking about us now, but that doesn’t mean they will be talking about us after the Spain game,” declared the 59 cap AEK Athens midfielder. “We have to stay focussed on the task at hand.”
Rehhagel is unlikely to ring the changes for this afternoon’s clash, despite centre half Nikos Dabizas and striker Themistoklis Nikolaidis both declaring themselves fit again. Of the two, it is Nikolaidis who is likely to get the nod. He has enjoyed a good season with Atletico Madrid and as a result will know the Spanish defence well.
Dabizas is unlikely to feature from the start unless Rehhagel opts for a five man defence, as centre half pairing Traianos Dellas and Mihailis Kapsis were particularly impressive against the Portuguese.
Nikolaidis is adamant that his colleagues are focussed and up to the task, citing Denmark’s shock victory at Euro 92 as their inspiration.
“The Danes were not the best team in 1992, but they did some spectacular things and I don’t think they were better than we are now,” he said.
“I am not surprised by our performance – we have been together for two years and know each other’s game very well. Spain are the favourites, but names on shirts don’t win matches.”
Rehhagel was keen to praise the Portuguese people for their graciousness in defeat on Saturday, perhaps in an attempt to drum up neutral support for his team during today’s encounter. Not that the Portuguese will need much encouragement to cheer on the opponents of their fierce local rivals and neighbours, Spain.
“Even though we beat them on their home ground, which was a very difficult loss for them, the people reacted admirably,” he revealed. “They applaud and wave at us wherever we go. I respect the Portuguese people enormously.”
Spain coach Inaki Saez faces the conundrum of whether to go for broke today, with victory taking some of the heat out of Sunday’s clash with Portugal, or rest some of his players in anticipation of that clash. The only thing he has confirmed is that he will stick to his 4-2-3-1 formation.
Fernando Morientes, who had an injury troubled end to a long season with Monaco, looked particularly jaded in the opening game. It was his withdrawal and replacement with Valeron that led to the Spanish winner. The coach may well start with Valeron this afternoon, pushing Raul up from the playmaking role as the lone striker. Alternatively, if he chooses to stick with Raul as the playmaker, then Atletico Madrid’s Fernando Torres may get the call ahead of Morientes.
Despite being just 20 years-old, Fernando Torres has long been regarded as Raul’s heir apparent. He looked particularly lively as a substitute against Russia, and would relish a first start in a major tournament.
Saez confirmed to the press on Tuesday that there would be changes.
“We are going to change and alternate the team,” he said. “There have to be changes because the rhythm of play is so great and the tiredness is multiplied.
Saez believes that Spain’s use of width will be crucial to his team’s chances today, and plans to attack the Greeks down both flanks.
“They are very strong down through the centre,” Saez said of the Greeks. “If we try to go through the middle too much we will have problems.”
His options on the flanks have been supplemented by the return to fitness of right winger Joaquin of Real Betis, a star of the 2002 World Cup. Saez may be tempted, however, to stick with Vicente on the left and Joseba Etxeberria on the right. Both had plenty of joy down the flanks against the Russians on Saturday.
Cesar Martin is in line for a start in central defence, at the probable expense of Carlos Marchena, who picked up a yellow on Saturday. There may also be a start for Real Sociedad’s Xabi Alonso in central midfield, as Saez believes the Basque gives his side more attacking options. Valencia’s Ruben Baraja may be the man to step down.
The Spanish players are certainly confident ahead of tonight’s game, with Saturday’s opening day victory putting them in an unusually comfortable position. The Spanish are used to playing catch up in the group stages of major competitions, but not this time round.
Real Madrid defender Raul Bravo summed up the confidence in the Spanish camp.
“If we keep the ball moving fast, there’s hardly a team that can match us,” he claimed.
“The main thing is not to let them score first. Greece are a team who close up really well and it would be difficult to turn the score around. So if we manage to clear the danger from our goal then we’ll win.”
Greece (probable): Nikopolidis; Seitaridis, Dellas, Kapsis, Fyssas; Zagorakis; Giannakopoulos, Basinas, Karagounis; Nikolaidis, Charisteas
Spain (probable): Iker Casillas; Puyol, Cesar, Helguera, Raul Bravo; Albelda, Xabi Alonso; Etxeberria, Valeron, Vicente; Raul
Referee: Lubos Michael (Slovakia)