Greece revert to type ahead of opening group match
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.
RELAX: Mario Yepes has total faith in the depth of this Colombia squad.