Greece welcomed Italy to the Olympic Stadium in Athens for what was to be the third game of their respective qualifying campaigns for next year’s European Championship. Italy came to Greece sitting top of group J with six points having beaten Finland and Lichtenstein. The hosts sat in third, having drawn with Bosnia and Herzegovina and beaten Lichtenstein.
Centre-backs Kostas Manolas and captain Sokratis Papastathopoulos were back for Greece after missing the defeat to Turkey in the last week’s friendly showdown.
Vasilios Barkas was in goal. Sokratis and Manolas played ahead of him, with Zeca on the right and Konstantinos Stafylidis on the left. Dimitris Siovas played as the deepest midfielder, often dropping back to help form a back five. Dimitrios Kourbelis and Andreas Samaris were in centre midfield, with Giorgos Masouras and Dimitris Kolovos out wide. Konstantinos Fortounis was the lone striker.
The only notable absentee for the Italian side was goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, through injury.
Salvatore Sirigu stood between the posts. Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini formed a very experienced centre-back partnership, with Emerson on their left and Alessandro Florenzi on the right. Jorginho anchored the midfield, with Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella slightly ahead. Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Chiesa supported striker Andrea Belotti from wide positions.
The First Half
The visitors showed more attacking intent early on, and they had their first chance in less than five minutes, but Zeca reacted well to prevent Belotti from giving his team the lead. Four minutes later, Chiellini hit the target heading from a corner, but his header was too tame to trouble Barkas.
Greece tried to move the lines further from their goal by aiming for Fortounis upfront who was supposed to hold the ball up and give his teammates time to join him in the opposition half, but with Chiellini and Bonucci constantly around, it wasn’t working very well.
It took the home side over 17 minutes to have some meaningful possession in Italy’s half, and it ended with Siovas hitting a volley from range and hitting the target, but straight at Sirigu.
The moment, however, gave the Greeks some courage and they ventured forward more often, but in the end it turned to their undoing. Minute 24 had just started when Italy burst down the left where Belotti made his run, entered the box, beat Zeca with pace and pulled it back for the incoming Barella who had no problems staying focused and putting the ball in the net.
It was “backs to the wall” for Greece again with their confidence torn to shreds by the goal, and they started looking shaky even when defending in numbers. With long balls towards Fortunoutis of no use, they tried to play out the back a few times but Italy’s high press was relentless.
Just before the half-hour mark, the Greeks moved forward in numbers again and it turned out costly once more. This time it was Insigne who broke down the left and beat Samaris. The Napoli forward entered the box and slotted past Barkas with a perfectly placed shot to the far corner.
The nerve of the Greek defence seemed gone completely, especially down their right where Emerson broke through a few times, before receiving the ball from a free-kick and whipping in a good cross which was headed off the post and into the net by Bonucci.
It was now all too easy for the visitors. They were brimming with confidence, bordering on arrogance, and they alone were setting the tempo of the contest; if contest it was.
With three minutes to go, they almost made it four, but Barkas this time reacted fantastically as he stopped first Barella who had made a great run in behind to latch onto a pass from Jorginho, and then Insigne on the rebound.
Greece tried again with long passes towards the end of the half, but Chiellini and Bonucci were immaculate.
The Second Half
Apart from Kourbelis and Kolovos making way for Manolis Siopis and Charalampos Mavrias, there was very little change after the break. Italy still dominated the game and controlled its flow to the point where it became quite obvious that Greece were no match for them, either quality wise or in terms of having the right game plan in place.
The one thing that did seem different was that the tempo was slightly down from the first half, but even that was down to Italy and the fact that it suited them. Greece’s predicament could’ve become far worse had referee Anthony Taylor not forgiven Samaris, already on a yellow card, for a clearly bookable foul on Jorginho in the 55th minute. He forgave Masouras (also previously booked) the same kind of offence on Verratti three minutes later.
Greece did have a good spell with just over 20 minutes remaining as they spent some time around the visitors’ box and Fortounis had a good go from a well-controlled volley, but Sirigu made a fine save. Mattia De Sciglio, who had replaced Emerson for Italy a few moments earlier, retaliated with a low drive from 20 yards that just missed the post 60 seconds later.
As was the case twice in the first half, another foray forward by Greece gave the Italians a great chance for a counterattack in the 75th minute and Chiesa sent a good pass in behind for Insigne to chase, but Barkas thwarted the Napoli man this time.
And then, the best chance of the game for Greece. Fortounis picked up an inexplicable loose backpass by Jorginho and charged forward. In the critical moment, the striker engaged Masouras on his right, but Masouras overcomplicated the matter and slowed down the attack which eventually ended with Siopis shooting sky-high from a position which was still favorable.
Then it was Italy’s turn to waste a good chance. Jorginho made amends for earlier by intercepting a pass in the opposition half and gave the ball to Insigne. Insigne sent Belotti in behind down the left and Belotti pulled it back for Chiesa, who blasted it over the bar, completely unmarked, from around 10 yards.
As the game entered its final 10 minutes, neither team seemed willing to put in much effort. Italy were happy with the scoreline, the Greeks had lost all drive and hope; and they looked it. The visitors still controlled possession and occasionally moved into the attacking third, but it looked more like they were looking for a defensive mistake from the opposition rather than trying to be creative.
In the 86th minute, however, Florenzi whacked one from range and prompted another fine save from Barkas, just like Barella a minute later.
The difference in quality between these teams was clear to see, and the convincing scoreline still doesn’t do it justice.
This is no Italy of old; no players like Francesco Totti, Alessandro Del Piero, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini or Andrea Pirlo. This team looked like a properly trained, disciplined unit, whose movements and combinations on the ball were simply too much for the home side to deal with. They defended well, they controlled the game in the middle of the pitch, and they were clinical in front of goal when they needed to be.
Greece, on the other hand, looked like a team that needs a lot of work if they are to hope of a successful qualifying campaign. Judging from what was seen in this game, it doesn’t look good. Too many missed tackles, too many loose passes, too many moments when a lack of movement from teammates put the player on the ball in a difficult situation; both when playing out from their own half and when charging forward.
The win naturally means Italy are still top of the group, with a maximum of nine points from three games, while Greece share places three and four with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Both teams have four points to their names and sit behind Finland who have six.
GREECE: Barkas 7.5, Sokratis 6.5, Manolas 7, Zeca 4, Stafylidis 4, Siovas 4, Samaris 5 (77′ Bakasetas N/A), Kourbelis 5 (46′ Siopis 5), Mosouras 5, Kolovos 4 (46′ Mavrias 5), Fortounis 6.5.
ITALY: Sirigu 6.5, Chiellini 8.5, Bonucci 8, Florenzi 7, Emerson 7.5 (68′ De Sciglio 7), Jorginho 7.5, Verratti 8 (81′ Pellegrini N/A), Barella 8.5, Chiesa 6.5, Insigne 8, Belotti 8 (84′ Bernardeschi N/A).
GOALS: Barella 23′, Insigne 30′, Bonucci 33′.
YELLOW CARDS: Samaris 18′, Verratti 43′, Masouras 45′
REFEREE: Anthony Taylor (England).
DATE & VENUE: June 8, 2019, Athens Olympic Stadium, Athens, Greece.
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