Match Preview: Greece v Russia

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On Saturday Russia and Greece finish off their Group A campaign by playing each other in Warsaw. Both teams have a lot to play for in this game. Greece need to win, and hope other results go their way in order to qualify. A draw will be sufficient for Russia (they could lose narrowly and still go through), but a win would secure first-place in the group and a more favourable quarter-final draw.

Greece have been a frustrating side to watch so far this tournament. They have started each game by showing little to no attacking ambition, and then dug a hole for themselves by falling behind, before finally coming forward in search of goals. What must be particularly maddening for Greek fans is that when Greece have come forward, they’ve actually looked like they can pose a threat, so the question is, why do they leave it until they’ve fallen behind to do so? That will be something Fernando Santos will be desperate to change.

Greece should have won their opening game and will be counting the cost of Karagounis’ missed penalty and a questionable offside call that ruled out a goal, unless they can somehow beat what looks like a very strong Russia team, and hope that Poland and the Czech Republic draw. History is not on their side however, as Greece have never won their final group game at a European Championship, with one of those defeats being against Russia in Euro 2004, with Russia also beating them in 2008. Also, Greece’s record against Russia is appalling, with the Greeks having won only three of their last 21 games against them, losing 13.

Greece usually lineup in a 4-3-3 formation, and hopefully Fernando Santos will throw off the shackles and let his team attack a bit more, preferably before they concede a goal! Santos has indicated he may change his team, and he does have a few options to do so.

Last game against the Czech Republic, Greece had a makeshift central defensive combination after both starting centrebacks were ruled out due to injury and suspension, with defensive midfielder Kostas Katsouranis drafted in to play at the back. It showed, as the Czech’s took advantage of some defensive confusion to score twice in the first 6 minutes, which left Greece with a mountain to climb.

Goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias is out of this game, having limped off against the Czech Republic, Michalis Sifakis should replace him as the starter. At centre back Sokratis Papastathopoulous returns after his suspension for the ludicrous red-card he picked up in the opening match and will partner Kryiakos Papadopoulos. Torosidis and Holebas have been the full-backs so far this tournament, but both looked very susceptible to pace, so Santos may possibly look to make a change there, with Giannis Maniatis, who played defensive midfield against the Czech Rep, a possible replacement at right-back.

The midfield should be a bit more stable with Katsouranis restored to his midfield position. Most of the good things Greece have done this tournament attacking-wise have been down to Giorgos Karagounis, so look to him to pull the strings for this Greek team. The final midfield place is up for grabs though. Maniatis did well last game, doing most of the running and consistently providing the defence with an out-ball to the midfield. However, Santos may decide to go with a more attack-minded player. Giorgios Fotakis played last game, but was largely anonymous, only getting 9 touches before being substituted, so Greek fans want to see the exciting Sotiris Ninis get a game. Ninis played against Poland, but was isolated out wide and ineffective, so maybe will be given a more central role to better utilise his talents. Greece have another exciting midfield prospect in Giannis Fetfatzidis, who has yet to play, so maybe Santos will bring him on if Greece have to go looking for a goal.

In attack Santos has a few decisions to make. Dimitris Salpingidis will probably play as he has been Greece’s main threat,  and Theofanis Gekas looked lively when he came on, and took his goal very well, so hopefully will play. Giorgos Samaras has played in both games so far, and looked awful in both. Samaras is in the team to help out the left-back and to make a nuisance of himself up front. He’s done neither this tournament, so maybe Santos will make a change with either Kostas Fortounis, who has been solid, if unspectacular so far, or Kostas Mitroglou, who came on against the Czechs and made a nuisance of himself getting a starting place.

Barring total disaster, Russia are effectively already through thanks to their superior goal difference. Usually, it is a truism of football that when a team doesn’t have to win, they don’t. However, Russia won’t take their foot off the gas pedal, as victory over Greece would ensure that they finish top of the group, which could be hugely important to Russia’s further progression in the competition, as the winner of Group A will meet the runner-up in group B, which at present means that they will avoid Germany. So Russia will not give Greece an easy ride.

Russia’s campaign so far has largely excellent, but has been interspersed with some really sloppy play. When Russia have been sharp and focussed, they’ve looked an extremely good team who are capable of competing with anyone. However, there have been periods where Russia have switched to cruise control during games and became lackadaisical, and when that has happened, they’ve allowed teams to get a foothold in games that had previously been under Russian control.

That’s what happened in Russia’s last game. Russia were leading 1-0 against Poland, looking impressive and in control, then were extremely careless in the second half, letting the Poles back into the game and with the crowd roaring them on, Poland equalised through a superb goal from Jakub Blaszczykowski, and could have gone on to win the game. This will be something that has infuriated Dick Advocaat so far this tournament, and will be something he will have cracked down on.

In goal Vyacheslav Malafeev has not only filled in for Igor Akinfeev admirably, he’s been excellent in his own right, making several important saves against Poland. Aleksandr Anyukov and Yuri Zhirkov will probably be the full-backs, though Russia have looked vulnerable to attacks on their left, suggesting that Zhirkov, who used to be an attacking midfielder, isn’t quite comfortable at left-back. Vasili Berezutsky and Ignashevich form a good central defensive partnership.

Russia usually play with the Zenit St Petersburg triumvirate of Igor Denisov, Roman Shirokov and Konstantin Zyryanov in midfield, but the latter has been ill the past few days so may miss the game. Should Zyryanov be absent, it will likely be either Igor Shemsov or the slightly more creative option of Denis Glushakov, who replaces him. Look out for Shirokov who impressed in last season’s Champions League has had an impressive tournament so far.

In attack, Andrey Arshavin has shown signs of playing close to his best. The problem with Arshavin has always been that when he’s in the mood, he can destroy a team single-handedly, when he’s not in the mood, he can be a huge drain on his own team, and he’s not in the mood more often than he is. Alan Dzagoev has been one of the players of the tournament so far, scoring three goals and providing a genuine attacking threat from deep. I’m sure that there will be more than a few European clubs looking to sign Dzagoev after this tournament.

Even though he’s yet to manage a shot on target this tournament after 11 shots, Russia will probably stick with Aleksandr Kerzhakov over Roman Pavlyuchenko as the central striker, as Kerzhakov (whose nickname is ‘BBBB’, which stands for ‘I shot, I shoot, I will shoot’ in Russian)  has a much greater work-rate and goes looking for the ball, rather than Pavlyuchenko, who waits for someone to give it to him, though Advocaat may make a change.

My Prediction: Greece 1-2 Russia  

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