Man of the Match
It’s so hard to devalue Giorgos Samaras’ stellar work along Greece’s left side and later in the center. Still, it just feels so wrong not to bequeath MoM honors to the man who pounced with such menace and scored such a grand and historic goal, as Giorgos Karagounis did. Besides, Karagounis’ 120th cap tonight equaled Theodoros Zagorakis’s national record, so it really was a memorable night in Warsaw for the veteran Greek frontrunner.
Packaged for take-away
- What is this 2004? Where seemingly better teams come and go … but somehow fall 1-0 to the Greeks?
- Greek manager Fernando Santos made four lineup changes, reckoning a need for a very experienced lineup that included the 35-year-old Karagounis. And they played a wonderfully intelligent match, absorbing pressure, recognizing Russia’s tendency to get a bit narrow, digging up a goal and then managing out the match – all without goalkeeper Michalis Sifakis ever needing to be overly heroic.
- Having seen his team fall behind early in Greece’s first two group matches, Santos urged his men to get into the match “straight from the referee’s whistle.” Message heard, apparently, as the Greeks pressed for about the first 10 minutes, with balls flashing dangerously across Russian goal before Andrey Arshavin and Co. got a toehold on the game.
- Samaras started on the left but was often isolated, with midfield help slow to arrive. His ability to get past one defender and draw a second or third Russian element posed a constant threat and served the essential purpose of subtracting just enough pressure from a Greek back line and midfield that needed just that little bit of assistance. Those 15-20 pass build-ups for Russia pushed Greece further and further back in the first half, so someone had to buy some time once the Greeks did gain the ball, and it was Samaras who did so brilliantly.
- Russia took control after 10 minutes, patiently probing for chances. But more stable shooting was the missing element, the one that ultimately keeps Dick Advocaat’s quality side from moving on. Aleksandr Kerzhakov, in particular, just couldn’t straighten out his shooting shoes. His movement off the ball was always helpful, but the former Sevilla man did his part as 25 attempts flew mostly high or harmlessly wide. Advocaat had seen enough of his off-target efforts by halftime, removing Kerzhakov.
- Still, Russia seemed to have matters in hand – before it all turned south, when Karagounis exploited a defensive error and put the Greeks ahead just before intermission. Russian center back Sergei Ignashevich went to sleep or had a brain fart or something, heading a rather benign throw-in toward the middle, where a wide-eyed Karagonis pounced. He drove into the box and fired a ball with purpose under Vyacheslav Malafeev.
- The goal lifted the Greeks, who were quite credible in the second half, gaining more possession and creating the higher quality chances. Giorgos Tzavellas’ exceptional 70th minute free kick got over the wall and had Malafeev beaten – but just could’t quite beat the woodwork, whacking right off the corner of the goal.
- Karagounis probably drew a penalty kick in the 61st with a daring dash through the Russian defense. There was sure contact with Ignashevich (yes, him again), but instead of earning a spot shot Karahounis got booked (incorrectly, it appeared) for embellishment or diving or whatever. It’s a shame, because he’ll miss the quarterfinal.
- If we’re picking nits – and we really should be, seeing as a powerful, pacey and skilled Russian side has been eliminated – perhaps Advocaat’s team was just too narrow. Even left fullback Yuri Zhirkov, who made some blistering runs forward, tended to move inside as he broached the attacking third.
- Things became even more congested for Russia as the Greeks’ 4-2-3-1 became a 4-5-1 after the break, with wide men Samaras and Dimitris Salpingidis moving their starting positions back about 15-20 yards.
- Had to say whether it was brilliant, collective midfield tracking and defending, or whether the old Arsenal form for Arshavin popped up at the worst time. Either way, the roaming Russian playmaker simply wasn’t to be found in the second half. He disappeared almost completely for about 20 minutes, finally showing up late to supply a couple of flicks and crosses that almost connected.