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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.

Dempsey returns to training after second heart procedure

SAN JOSE, CA - JULY 28:  Clint Dempsey #2 of MLS All-Stars chases after the ball up field against the Arsenal FC during the second half of the AT&T MLS All-Star Game at Avaya Stadium on July 28, 2016 in San Jose, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
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Many were concerned about USMNT and Seattle Sounders attacker Clint Dempsey‘s future when he underwent a pair of heart procedures in 2016.

The 33-year-old Dempsey took another step to allay those fears when he hit the pitch for Seattle’s first day of preseason camp.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

The Sounders won the 2016 MLS Cup despite the absence of Dempsey, and his return would further strengthen the side. General manager Garth Lagerwey said Dempsey won’t be rushed, but could be nearing a return.

EFL Cup second legs preview: Liverpool, Hull City aim for comebacks

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 11:  Divock Origi of Liverpool battles with Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (L) and Ryan Bertrand of Southampton during the EFL Cup semi-final first leg match between Southampton and Liverpool at St Mary's Stadium on January 11, 2017 in Southampton, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images
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Manchester United and Southampton are 90 minutes from Wembley Stadium.

Hull City and Liverpool would prefer to change that.

After first legs a fortnight ago, the EFL Cup semifinals play out on Wednesday and Thursday ahead of Feb. 26’s final at Wembley.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

First up is Southampton‘s trip to Liverpool, with the Saints nursing a 1-0 lead from the first leg at St. Mary’s. The Wednesday kickoff sees Saints hoping the Reds’ poor run of form will continue at Anfield. Liverpool has one win 2017, and that was an FA Cup replay victory over Plymouth Argyle.

Southampton boss Claude Puel knows the Reds will be ornery:

“We know Liverpool. They lost against Swansea at home, and I am sure they will want to react against us, but it’s important to keep all of our focus about our play.

“We know they are fantastic, a great team, with great players, but you saw in the first leg we have the ability to produce a strong game against them. It will be important to make a strong game – a perfect game – I think.”

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United got a terrific result in the first leg at Old Trafford, scoring twice and holding Hull City from scooping up a valuable road goal. Juan Mata and Marouane Fellaini scored the goals in the 2-0 win, but the KC Stadium will be rocking on Thursday as the Tigers look to reverse the result.

United midfielder Michael Carrick says the Red Devils will play as if they are starting from scratch:

“It’s definitely not over, we all know that. We are telling ourselves that. I think we’ll be pretty much full strength and will approach the game like it’s a 0-0 and starting from scratch.

“It’s dangerous when you go in there defending a lead to tell yourself this result will do or that result will do, or we can afford to do this or that.”

Report: China tempting TFC’s Giovinco with big offer

Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Union during the first half of an MLS soccer playoff match in Toronto, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2016. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
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Could Sebastian Giovinco’s chances of another MVP award be diminishing?

It wouldn’t be on account of a lack of production, rather massive money coming his way from the Chinese Soccer League.

[ MORE: How will U.S. line up vs. Serbia? ]

Great, and right when we were daydreaming about how Toronto FC’s Italian attacker could run a revenge tour on the folks who somehow left him out of the MVP finalists last year.

Giovinco turns 30 on Thursday.

From The Toronto Sun’s Kurtis Larsson:

“The Chinese club seems to be very interested, but I don’t think it’ll be easy to take him away from Toronto,” Giovinco’s agent, Andrea D’Amico, told the broadcaster.

“We received an important offer from China and we’ll talk to Toronto to decide, along with Sebastian, what to do.”

Giovinco is with Toronto FC for preseason training camp, and both the club and player have shown no interest in moving on from the diminutive winger and 2015 MVP.

But if China comes calling with crazy money, say a $25-30 million transfer fee, shouldn’t TFC think twice? Any figure above $25 million would be more than the sum of the three biggest incoming transfer fees in MLS history (Miguel Almiron, Michael Bradley, Jermain Defoe).

AFCON wrap: Ivory Coast bounced, DR Congo wins Group C

Congo's soccer players celebrate after scoring a goal against Togo during the African Cup of Nations Group C soccer match between Congo and Togo at the Stade de Port-Gentil, Gabon, Tuesday Jan. 24, 2017. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
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Down went another knockout round mainstay from the Africa Cup of Nations, as the Ivory Coast failed to capture one of the top two spots in Group C.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Morocco 1-0 Ivory Coast

Needing a win to move on, the Ivory Coast fell in its final group match. Rachid Alioui scored a 64th minute goal that meant the Ivory Coast needed two to advance to the quarterfinals. The goals didn’t come, and Morocco will face the Group D winner next.

Togo 1-3 DR Congo

Junior Kabananga, Paul-Jose M’Poku, and Ndombe Mubele scored as the Leopards finished the group stage with an unbeaten record of 2-1. DR Congo will face the runner-up of Group D in the quarterfinals.

Wednesday’s matches

Ghana is through with six points, while Uganda is out. Egypt will go through with a result against Ghana, while Mali needs a win and an Egypt loss to get to tiebreakers.

Egypt vs. Ghana — 2 p.m. ET
Uganda vs. Mali — 2 p.m. ET