2014 World Cup Team Preview: Greece

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Getting to know… Greece
Greece are quietly (and some might say, boringly) one of the world soccer’s greatest powers. Well, of the 21st century, anyway. Prior to 2004, no one paid Greece much attention. Then they went on to win the 2004 European Championship.

Their success in the Euros ten years ago marked them out as formidable opponents, although they failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and only made it to the group stage of Euro 2008. Greece then went to South Africa but failed to get out of the group stages.

However, they’re currently ranked 10th in the world, however surprising that might be. Greece did manage to make it to the quarterfinals of Euro 2012, but needed to win a playoff to reach Brazil. In this case, focusing on their ranking may be overestimating the side – but it’s always wise to remember that this strong defensive unit can take points off top teams.

Record in qualifying
Greece finished even on points with Bosnia in UEFA Group G, both winning eight, losing one and drawing one for a total of 25 points. But Bosnia’s +24 goal difference far outweighed the Greeks’ +8.

That meant a two-legged playoff with Romania, who’d finished behind Netherlands. Surprisingly, considering Greece had scored no more than two goals in any match in qualifying, they ran out 3-1 winners in the first leg. The second finished a 1-1 draw, but it mattered little. Greece won 4-2 on aggregate and were set for Brazil.

Oh, and Kostas Mitroglou scored three of Greece’s four goals in the playoff round. The same Kostas Mitroglou who went to Fulham and was never seen again.

A look at Group C
Nothing about Group C looks easy. Colombia, the top seeds, are one of the dark horses in this year’s World Cup, even if Radamel Falcao doesn’t get back to full fitness in time. Ivory Coast are getting on in years, but they have Yaya Touré, who had a superb season at Manchester City, and Didier Drogba, who might be 36 but can still score some immense goals. And then there’s Japan, whose attacking threat may be enough to wear down Greece’s defenses.

Game schedule

Sunday, June 15 at 12 noon: Colombia vs. Greece (Estadio Mineirão, Belo Horizonte)

Thursday, June 19 at 6 p.m.: Japan vs. Greece (Arena das Dunas, Natal)

Tuesday, June 24 at 4 p.m.: Greece vs. Ivory Coast (Estadio Castelão, Fortaleza)

Star player
Greece lack a certain star quality. They’ve got a few players in Italy, two at Fulham, and most of the rest in the domestic league. The star, almost by default, becomes Kostas Mitroglou, he of the famed $20m move to Fulham, back in January. But a persistent knee problem, combined with doubts expressed by manager Felix Magath, kept the forward out of the starting lineup. In his four months at the club, Mitroglou started just once.

But Mitroglou has scored eight goals in 28 appearances for his country, including those vital goals in the playoff against Romania. And considering coach Fernando Santos cut three other strikers from his preliminary squad, it makes sense to keep one that’s been able to step up in important games.

Manager
Fernando Santos has been at the helm since 2010, after coaching domestic club PAOK for three seasons. Despite being voted Greece’s best coach of the decade in 2010, the shadow of his predecessor still lingers.

Santos took over from Otto Rehhagel, the coach that lead Greece to their Euro triumph. And while the Portuguese tactician has attempted to introduce a different style to the national team, little has changed. Greece are still known primarily for their defensive strength…

Secret weapon
Which is, of course, their not-so-secret weapon. If you’re not an avid watcher of European tournaments or qualifiers, you may not know just how much Greece rely on their defense. After all, they lost to both South Korea and Argentina by a 2-0 scoreline in 2010, and beat Nigeria 2-1.

But Greece pride themselves on being as stingy as possible. They conceded just four times in qualifying, a record bettered only by Cup holders Spain. Yet Greece faced rather weak competition from the rest of Group G, and in their second meeting with Bosnia, the latter knocked in three. Will their weapon fail them in Brazil?

Prediction
Greece will barely have any time to unpack their bags. It’s highly unlikely they’ll make it out of the group stages, and a last-place finish in Group C is well within the realm of possibility.

Defoe walks out Bradley Lowery, scores in England win

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Jermain Defoe’s friendship with terminally-ill Bradley Lowery has been special to watch unfold, and the Sunderland striker brought his little buddy to Wembley today.

Then he notched a match-winner.

Lowery walked Defoe out onto the field in a replica England kit before Sunday’s World Cup qualifier against Lithuania, and then Defoe scored his 20th goal for country.

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It was his first since 2013, the last year Defoe was called up for the Three Lions.

Here’s the goal, which was followed by a second-half Jamie Vardy tally as England stayed atop Group F with a 2-0 win over Lithuania.

Two Russian soccer fans stabbed in Serbia

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BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) Two Russian fans have been hospitalized with serious injuries after being stabbed following a friendly soccer match between Red Star Belgrade and Lokomotiv Moscow.

Serbian Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic said Sunday police were looking for the knife-wielding perpetrators who attacked a group of Lokomotiv fans in downtown Belgrade late Saturday.

Serbian media reports said the Russian fans were attacked by supporters of Red Star’s rival Partizan Belgrade.

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The match, which Red Star won 2-1, was meant to promote Serbia’s traditional friendship with Russia.

Stefanovic says “nobody should think they could hurt the Serbian-Russian friendship” with such attacks.

Serbia has seen a surge of fan violence inside and outside stadiums. In 2009, a French football fan was fatally beaten in Belgrade.

VIDEO: Gerrard’s juggle and finish leads Liverpool legends past Real Madrid

AP Photo/Rui Vieira
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Scoring at Anfield doesn’t get old, especially when your name is Steven Gerrard.

The English midfielder was playing in a friendly match between Liverpool and Real Madrid “legends” on Sunday, when he delivered this tasty goal (and assists to Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, and John Aldridge).

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Gerrard redirects a cross over a lunging defender and into a place where he can lash a goal home to put the Reds up 4-0. He dedicated his Man of the Match performance to club legend Ronnie Moran, who died earlier this week.

Real’s comeback came up just short in a 4-3 final, with Fernando Morientes, Ruben de la Red, and Edwin Congo scoring for the visitors.

On a Sunday waiting for the international matches to begin, Gerrard supplies a nice highlight for the rest of us (Extended highlights free on Liverpool’s site).

Ozil bristles at talk of Arsenal selling him

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Mesut Ozil is on international break, and bristling at reports that Arsenal is going to sell him.

The midfielder’s absence from the lineup last week had plenty speculating on his future, even more than usual. His contract expires in 2018, and several reports claimed he’d join Alexis Sanchez as players destined for elsewhere.

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Ozil was not called up by Germany, and has missed four of his last nine Premier League matches. Three of those were for illness, and he missed last week’s loss to West Brom with a hamstring injury.

From Metro:

“And you think Wenger tells the journalist before he tells me? Then I know him differently,” Ozil told German outlet Welt.

“I have a contract until 2018 in London and I feel very comfortable there. We’ll talk soon and then make a decision.”

Metro notes that Ozil also said he wants to win the Champions League, something that can only happen with Arsenal remaining in the Top Four. We suppose you could make snarky inferences from his “comfortable in London” phrasing, but we’ll leave it there.