Buy This Issue
The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 15 October 2016
28 THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 15 OCTOBER 2016 SPORT DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM ISSN 1321-1676 9 771321 167062 Back on track With three wins in its opening three matches of its 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the national side looks like it’s back to playing football PHOTO: EUROKINISSI. GERARD PAPASIMAKOPOULOS If you had told Michael Skibbe, the current manager of the Greek national football team, that at the end of the first bracket of qualifying matches for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, his team would be sitting pretty at the top of group H, sharing the summit with clear favourites Belgium, he would have said a hearty "thank you very much, yes please sir" and pinned that particular pin proudly on his well-ironed shirt collar. It says a lot about the mental and footballing progress the national side has made, that even though that three-out-of-three start is now a reality, there is a distinct ain'tno-thang feel about it. Clear wins against Gibraltar, Cyprus and Estonia may indeed be nothing to shout about and it's true that qualification for the World Cup in Russia may still be a long way off; the Greek national side, however, is gradually regaining something that it has been sorely lacking for a while − belief. Belief that a new team core can indeed be established. Belief that the mental toughness of old can be re-introduced to the side. Belief that there is enough quality and skill in the side to carry the team past the disastrous times that unfolded after the end of the Fernando Santos era. And finally, belief that Skibbe himself is the right man for the job, a rebuilding task that few people in the sport envied or coveted when he took up the challenge. The national side, of course, has not been transformed into a worldbeating force overnight. As was previously stated, it has only faced Gibraltar, Cyprus and Estonia, teams that can hardly provide a particularly strenuous test. Still, this is more or less the same national team that was humbled not once but twice by the Faroe Islands − an unmistakable all-time low in Greek footballing history − so any crumb of evidence pointing to the presence of a functioning side was and remains a bonus. Are there still areas of play that need to be ironed out or go back to the drawing board? Absolutely. Against both Cyprus and Estonia, Skibbe's men spent long periods of the opening 45 minutes chasing the ball, allowing unforgivable open routes through centre midfield, an area that is still clearly troubling Skibbe, with the German coach having tried a variety of combinations, as he struggles to settle on the two men best suited to shield his de- fence and provide the platform upon which to orchestrate the team's forays towards the opposition box. On top of that, Skibbe seems determined to shoehorn Tasos Bakasetas, Kostas Fortounis and Petros Mandalos in an attacking trio just behind lone marksman Kostas Mitroglou, three players who ideally operate in a quasi-number 10 role and do not relish nor seem to ultimately grasp what life on the attacking wings is all about. The aforementioned issue has seen the right-hand side of the Greek defence left exposed time and again, especially so against Estonia and Cyprus, with Petros Mandalos − who is usually picked by Skibbe to operate on the right side of his attacking midfield trio − drifting inwards, looking for areas of the pitch that he's more comfortable in and allowing the opposition left back license to roam. So yes, this is by no means a per- fect team, a flawless side that is already thinking of the in-flight meal options on the way to Russia. This is still a team in transition, but one that is showing some promising signs of recovery. While the attacking midfield trio concept still needs serious tweaking, Mandalos, Fortounis and Mitroglou are already showing signs of develop- ing an interesting partnership, with the two attacking midfielders clicking passes together when on song, opening up defences and allowing Mitroglou to take up more advanced positions, waiting to pounce on through balls, rather than dropping further back in an effort to get hold of the ball. Meanwhile, Mandalos’ tendency to drift inwards allows Fortounis to move away from the central areas he usually occupies, pulling opposition defenders with him and creating a constant defensive imbalance. Further back, Kostas Stafylidis finally seems to be coming into his own, blossoming into an all-action full-back, strong in the tackle, but also able to offer an attacking threat, as he demonstrated with some flair in the Estonia game, curling an expertly struck free-kick into the net and locking down another win for Skibbe's men. Still in defence, the injuries to Socratis Papastathopoulos and captain Vasilis Torosidis during the Estonia game may have had the side struggling for shape on the pitch, but with Marios Oikonomou stepping in off the bench, Greece seemed to have found a rather rare gem, with Oikonomou showing off ball-playing skills and a cool head which you would usually expect of central defenders with far heftier resumes. Most of all though, what these three wins have demonstrated is that the national team is starting to look like just that: a team. With Skibbe deciding to focus on a core of players much like Otto Rehagel did, his team has started to operate like one, and while Greece is never going to wow audiences with Brazillike flair, they can at least go back to what they know: being a tough, pragmatic side that can grind out wins when needed and on occasion serve up some moments of pure where-the-heck-did-that-come-from footballing excellence. Up next is Bosnia Herzegovina, which presents Greece's toughest test yet. With towering captain Edin Dzeko still leading the line expertly and the excellent Miralem Pjanic providing the firepower, the Bosnians will surely push and probe the weaknesses in Skibbe's side, possibly exposing them even more than they have already. This time, however, it seems that the national side is in a better position to answer such challenges. For a team that was outsmarted and outclassed by the Faroe Islands not too long ago, that is surely a sizeable step forward.
8 October 2016
22 October 2016