Greece re­vert to type ahead of open­ing group match

The Herald - Herald Sport - - WORLD CUP 2014 - GIANNI RUSSO IN BELO HOR­I­ZONTE

THERE was a sug­ges­tion last night that the Greek squad do not in­tent to make the most of their op­por­tu­nity to stroll around the Es­ta­dio Mineirao be­fore kick off. The Euro­pean side will tonight take on South Amer­i­can op­po­si­tion in the form of Colom­bia, a side which is not able to call on striker Radamel Fal­cao but which are not with­out a threat. They pos­sess just enough dan­ger in their squad to con­vince Greece not to stray too far from their own half.

A sense of ad­ven­ture is not part of their make-up any­way, and it even seems un­likely that their play­ers will be found wan­der­ing over the half-way line as they stroll out on to the pitch in the hours be­fore the game. They have crossed the seas to com­pete at the World Cup and could take some con­vinc­ing to stray any fur­ther from their com­fort zone.

It would per­haps be un­duly un­kind to sug­gest that this re­lates only to their own 18-yard box. How­ever, the Greeks – who will also take on Ja­pan and Ivory Coast in their group – con­sider their open­ing match tonight to be cru­cial to their as­pi­ra­tions of pro­gress­ing from the group phase and are de­ter­mined not to make a mess of it. That is un­likely to in­volve any out­side-the-penalty-box think­ing on their part.

“We have it in our own hands to beat them,” said Gior­gos Tza­vel­las, the Greek de­fender. “Colom­bia will have to find a way to score against us and that will be very dif­fi­cult and I hope­ful we will win this game. This first game is ex­tremely im­por­tant.”

A vic­tory would be con­sid­ered as an­other up­set at a ma­jor tour­na­ment per­pe­trated by the Greeks. It is now 10 years since they be­came Euro­pean cham­pi­ons, a tri­umph with which they forged a rep­u­ta­tion as a hard­work­ing de­fen­sive team.

They also con­ceded just four goals in their 10 World Cup qual­i­fiers. “They have a high-qual­ity at­tack but ev­ery­one of us is ex­pe­ri­enced. We will only play to win,” said Kostas Manolas, the Greek de­fender. “We are a good team and we will prove it on Satur­day.”

Greece will need to be at their well-or­gan­ised best as Colom­bia, de­spite the ab­sence of tal­is­manic striker Fal­cao at this tour­na­ment, have out­stand­ing at­tack­ing op­tions. Among them are Jack­son Martinez and Car­los Bacca, a threat which only seems to be in­creased given the team’s dy­namic play­ing style.

For 64-year-old Colom­bia coach Jose Pek­er­man, any re­sult other than vic­tory would be a dis­ap­point­ment and he is bank­ing on his Euro­pean mer­ce­nar­ies to deliver, Fully 15 of the 23 play­ers in his squad ply their trade across the At­lantic.

“Colom­bia can­not sim­ply change its play­ing style,” said Mario Yepes, the Colom­bian cap­tain and a player in Italy with Ata­lanta. “Through­out the qual­i­fiers we re­lied on pos­ses­sion of the ball and that is what makes us strong.”

That pos­ses­sion game in­cludes at­tack­ing full-backs and the abil­ity to launch rapid counter-at­tacks. “Some­times, in some games, it is nor­mal that it does not work, but we will try to do to at­tack in this sys­tem,” added the de­fender, who plays for Italy’s Ata­lanta.

Yepes ac­knowl­edged that his na­tional side will miss Fal­cao, as well as in­jured de­fend­ers Aldo Ramirez and Luis Perea and mid­fielder Ed­win Va­len­cia, but that their style would be the same who­ever was on the pitch this evening.

“The idea is that Colom­bia plays the same way even though the names may change. We want to have the ball to play our flow­ing game,” added the de­fender.

Pek­er­man – who gave for­ward Lionel Messi his in­ter­na­tional de­but for Ar­gentina in 2005 – is con­fi­dent that a South Amer­i­can na­tion can lift the tro­phy this sum­mer. He noted too that his own tip was Ar­gentina.

“I couldn’t be­lieve what I was see­ing when I brought Messi into the Ar­gentina na­tional team,” said the the coach, who led Ar­gentina at the 2006 World Cup in Ger­many.

The four-times World Player of the Year has won a glit­ter­ing ar­ray of club sil­ver­ware and has es­tab­lished him­self as one of the finest play­ers to grace the game. How­ever, some be­lieve that the lit­tle for­ward must win the World Cup be­fore he can be hailed as a true great.

“I never doubted he was the ris­ing star, I al­ways dreamed he was go­ing to be what he has be­come,” Pek­er­man added, smil­ing at the mem­o­ries. “Those first steps are un­for­get­table. With­out doubt, he and the team can give Ar­gentina an­other World Cup.”

Pek­er­man’s cov­eted Ar­gentina side reached the quar­ter-fi­nals in 2006 but lost on penal­ties to Ger­many, with the coach then re­sign­ing from his post. Con­tro­ver­sially, Pek­er­man sub­sti­tuted mid­fielder Juan Ro­man Riquelme and kept Messi on the bench for that match. “Some people just re­mem­ber when he [Messi] didn’t come on against Ger­many and they for­get the other part,” said the coach.

That was in ref­er­ence to his role in en­sur­ing that Messi played for Ar­gentina when he was also be­ing wooed by Spain, where he has lived since join­ing Barcelona’s youth set-up. “I’m very happy for ev­ery­thing Lionel has done,” he added.

The grey-haired Pek­er­man, who played nearly half his ca­reer in Colom­bia as a mid­fielder for In­de­pen­di­ente Medellin, in­sisted that he did not feel split loy­al­ties de­spite his strong home links. “I feel very com­fort­able with Colom­bia, there’s lots of his­tory,” he said, be­fore a train­ing ses­sion at the Mineirao sta­dium. He may have found Greece bed­ding down in their own box.

Pic­ture: PA

RE­LAX: Mario Yepes has to­tal faith in the depth of this Colom­bia squad.

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