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Greece fears going from triumph to tragedy against Russia

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 14 Jun 2008

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Four years ago Otto Rehhagel, the German disciplinarian who turned Greece into officially the best team in Europe, could have snapped his fingers and reserved himself a table at the best restaurants in the country. But the adulation has begun to fade with his team looking anything like title defending material in Tuesday's 2-0 loss to Sweden.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's fantastic strike and Petter Hansson's rather scruffier affair brought the Swedes a win which suggested that this year, Emperor Rehhagel has lost many of his coaching clothes.

The team qualified for this year's event in style – having between-times missed out on the World Cup finals in 2006 – but the lustre had gone altogether against the Swedes and the Greek media slammed Rehhagel's “mingy” and “timid” defensive tactics.

Only full atonement against Russia in Salzburg on Saturday will do for a country who worry that 2004 triumph will give way to tragedy in 2008 with qualification for the quarter-finals looking a big ask.

Both sides need the points with the Russians having slumped to a 4-1 mauling at Spanish hands and further failure will mean this summer's adventure will come to a premature end.

Although the Russians are perhaps even more shell-shocked at the manner of their opening loss the Greeks were trying to circle the wagons and display a resilient attitude in light of severe criticism in the press.

“We lost a match, not the war!” commented experienced defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos.

“It is not forbidden to criticise us, but we have heard some hard things,” said another defender Vassilis Torosidis.

“We are human beings after all!”

Rehhagel came out fighting to do what he does – and the Greeks used to do – best.

Defend their position.

“I did what I thought was best. If we had adopted different tactics we would have shipped five goals in the first half. We were 0-0 at the break,” said the man elected Greek of the year in 2004 and was also rewarded with the offer of Greek citizenship.

Rehhagel, who turns 70 this summer, said his players on the night were “not up to the level I had hoped for.”

But he added that he had to work with the material at his disposal and “statistically we don't score a lot – our wins are based on rigorous defensive organisation.”

Before the Swedish loss he had urged Greece to “love” the team even when it lost, which before he took charge it had plenty experience of doing.

Now Rehhagel and fellow veteran coach Guus Hiddink must await a potential war of attrition as the winner will not necessarily find the three points sufficient to bag a place in the last eight and anything less will be worthless.

Hiddink's side are hampered by the suspension for another game of top star Andrei Arshavin, who will only finally return to face the Swedes on June 18.

Arshavin was banned after kicking out against a rival at the end of the qualifiers, a nervy 1-0 win over Andorra.

The Zenit St Petersburg star would have helped to stem the tide against the Spanish when Hiddink lambasted his side for “naive” defending and his speed and artistry were sorely missed.

“We were caught out on too much naivety and then got punished,” was Hiddink's assessment.

Hiddink also has a problem over striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, who has a groin injury and is far from certain to make the line-up which added to the pre-tournament withdrawal of Pavel Pogrebnyak leaves Hiddink struggling for an effective frontline.

Nonetheless, the likelikood that Greece, with their siege mentality, will force the Russians to undergo anything like a second Spanish inquisition is none existent.

If anything, the Greeks are likely to approach their second test with even greater caution.

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