Greece’s reign as European champions came to an early end here on Saturday as Russia beat them 1-0 in their Group D Euro 2008 clash.
A goal by Konstantin Zyryanov in the 33rd minute was enough to see off the Greeks, a howler by one of their few world class players, goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis, contributing – victory keeps Russian hopes alive of making the last eight but they will have to beat Sweden on Wednesday.
Spain have qualified as group winners while the Greeks join an unenviable list of European champions to go out in the first round – Czechoslovakia in 1980, Denmark in 1996 and Germany in 2000.
However, Greece’s veteran German coach Otto Rehhagel refused to be too downcast.
“I am not as disappointed as all that,” said the former Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich coach.
“Because I knew at what level we were and everything had to come together for us to beat the Russians. Our problem is that we score so few goals,” added Rehhagel, who has been criticised for deploying too defensive tactics.
For his Russia counterpart Guus Hiddink it was just reward for the manner in which his side had bounced back from their opening 4-1 defeat by Spain.
“I geed up the players a little after the Spanish match and they have reacted well,” said the 61-year-old Dutchman.
“However, we need to improve in terms of taking our chances.”
The Greeks had shown a marginally more adventurous approach than in their first match and their Atletico Madrid fullback Giourkas Seitaridis got down the right in the 12th minute and put in a dangerous cross only for Russian ‘keeper Igor Akinfeev to gather safely.
The Russians bit back a minute later as the Greeks lost possession in midfield and the ball reached striker Roman Pavlyuchenko, whose lob Nikopolidis tipped over the bar for a corner.
The Greeks, though, had the clearest chance of the opening 20 minutes, as a freekick was floated in and their Euro 2004 hero Angelos Charisteas went up for it unmarked just two metres. But he unbelievably failed to make any contact and the ball bounced just wide of the goal off Igor Semshov’s shoulder.
However, it was the Russians who deservedly took the lead in the 33rd minute as Nikopolidis astonishingly chased a lob which was drifting wide instead of allowing Ioannis Amanatidis to do the job of clearing it.
And it was a brilliant overhead kick by Sergei Semak that set up Zyryanov to tap the ball home.
The Russians were all over the Greeks and they were further unsettled in the 40th minute when Rehhagel decided to replace Seitaridis with playmaker Georgios Karagounis, who had been surprisingly left out of the starting line-up.
His first contribution, though, was to go into the referee’s book in the 42nd minute for pulling back Semshov as he burst clear over the halfway line.
Charisteas’ dreadful evening and even worse time since his night of glory continued within the first minute of the second-half as he got into a good position but with only Akineev to beat he lobbed his effort lamely into the goalkeepers’ hands.
Pavlyuchenko hardly looked like a man who was struggling to make the match with a groin problem as twice in the opening minutes of the second period he forced Nikopolidis into saves.
Pavlyuchenko also produced a brilliant piece of skill in the 52nd minute as he nutmegged a Greek defender and advanced into the penalty area but his shot to the near post went wide.
Karagounis replied, at last forcing Akineev into making a save, though the shot was straight at him and that seemed to give the Greeks a sense of much-needed urgency as captain Angelos Basinas was well placed outside the box but got under the ball and lofted it high over the bar.
Russia, though, kept on creating chances but crucially not taking them as a delightful backheel by Pavlyuchenko inside the box set up Diniyar Bilyaletdinov but he sent his shot wide of the far post.
The Greeks huffed and puffed with little effect while the Russians produced the elegant football but only really went close to doubling their lead with 10 minutes to go as Zhirkov floated a freekick just wide of the post.
For all of Russia’s profligacy the Greeks were unable to find that vital goal and the tears of joy of 2004 were replaced by ones of misery.
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