Georgios Samaras of Greece watches the ball as Vasiliy Berezucky of Russia chases down during the international friendly match between Greece and Russia at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Athens, Greece. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
Everything in Greece is the same as it ever was -- they play defensive football. Their Euro 2004 win was a once in a lifetime triumph, but things might be different this summer when they find themselves in another part of the world.
Not too much has changed since Greece won Euro 2004. They have the same kinds of players and they play the same style of football. They have a good mix of youth and experience, they're very organized at the back, and they're fairly technically adept for a team that doesn't play pretty passing football. The only thing that's changed is that they're not surprising anyone.
Greece failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, but Euro 2012 marks the third consecutive major finals and the fourth out of five that the nation has qualified for. Most of their team is based domestically and the players who are based outside of Greece do not play for European powers, but they remain competitive regardless. Every international manager that might come across Greece is now familiar enough with the team that they're not going to make a miracle run to a European title, but they're a good enough team that they won't be a walkover for anyone. A defensive -- and some would say very negative -- 4-3-3 is not a gimmick tactic. It's tough to break down.
Even though Greece's group was arguably the easiest group in Euro qualifying, they still plowed through it in impressive fashion. Seven wins, three draws, zero losses. They drew Croatia 0-0 away and defeated them 2-0 at home. Less happily, they drew Georgia at home and only defeated Malta 1-0 on the road. In 10 games, they scored just 14 goals.
This is essentially the same way that Greece qualified for the last two major finals, in which they didn't fare well. They finished 25th out of 32 teams at the 2010 World Cup and had the worst point total and goal differential at Euro 2008, where they finished last. When they get into games with the big boys, their strategy doesn't seem to work as well.
Greece are generally very dependent on their counter-attack to score, so when their opponent scores early, they get into trouble. In their first 2010 World Cup match, South Korea scored just seven minutes in, completely destroying Greece's game plan. In their next match against Nigeria, they gave up an early goal again, but were able to recover against a poor Super Eagles team. In their final match of the tournament, their game plan worked until the end of their game against Argentina, when Martin Demichelis scored on a set piece in Argentina's 2-0 win.
Euro 2008 was a similar story. They were undone by the quality of Zlatan Ibrahimovic against Sweden and let Russia score on them early. Their final match of the tournament saw them execute their strategy perfectly, as they went ahead 1-0 on Spain with a late first half goal, but the eventual champions had too much quality for Greece and eventually broke them down twice in a 2-1 win, with Dani Guiza playing hero in the 88th minute.
The good news for Greece is that they don't have to face anyone of the quality of Spain or Argentina in this tournament. None of the teams in their group have a player anywhere near as good as Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It's debatable whether or not a team as good as South Korea is in Group A. Russia, the Czech Republic and hosts Poland are all beatable, but none are pushovers. It shouldn't be stunning if Greece leave the group with either zero points or nine points.
There's also something a little bit different about the composition of this year's Greece squad. Experienced midfielders Giogos Karagounis and Kostas Katsouranis from Panathinaikos still anchor the team, while Theofanis Gekas leads the line and Giorgos Samaras pretends to have some business playing for a decent professional football team, but the young players are nothing like the senior players around them.
The key to Greece's success or failure could lie in the hands of Sotiris Ninis, the 22-year-old Panathanaikos playmaker was injured for most of the season and just recently came back into his club side. He started Greece's most recent friendly against Slovenia at right forward, where he's likely to start the tournament. He's played as a creative option in a double pivot and as a No. 10, but the defensive-minded Greeks are likely to move him out wide and only play him in the center if they're chasing a game. He was hyped as a future star as a teenager, but a serious of injuries have slowed his progress. He appears to be healthy, and he will need to be the link between the steel of the midfield and Gekas' finishing touch.
Off the bench, emerging young winger Giannis Fetfatzidis will provide a great change of pace when Greece are feeling in need of a bit more flair. The 21-year-old Olympiakos super sub has been dubbed the "Greek Messi", which while extremely hyperbolic, actually says something about the level of skill that he has with the ball at his feet. He's too inexperienced and too much of a defensive liability to start for a team like Greece, but he might be asked to pull off some late-game heroics. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, a 20-year-old battering ram of a player for Schalke, will also be a key bench contributor. He can fill in at central defense when needed, but will likely be used to provide some energy in midfield late in games.
Three of the four starting spots in Greece's defense will go to players with extensive national team experience. From right to left, Vasilis Torosidis, Avraam Papadopoulos and Sokratis Papastathopoulos will play along the back line. The left back spot should be taken by Jose Holebas, a naturalized German with three caps to his name. His father is Greek and he moved to Olympiakos from 1860 Munich in 2010.
Greece has options for youth and flair in midfield if they prefer, but they are Greece, so they do not prefer to do so. Expect to see Karagounis, Katsouranis and Grigoris Makos -- the latter of whom has just 10 caps -- in a defensive midfield three. Karagounis occasionally does cool things, but he's really pushing his luck these days starting in midfield at 35-years-old. The other two midfielders exist to borderline-illegally shoulder people off the ball. They're behind Ninis, Gekas and Samaras, two of whom have some right to be there. You can figure out who the odd man out is.
This is hardly a juggernaut of a team, but neither are any of the teams in their group. Poland have the home crowd behind them and a great contingent of players from Borussia Dortmund, but not much else. Russia aren't as good as they were in 2008. The Czech Republic were impressive in their playoff win over Montenegro, but were not impressive in their group. They lost to Lithuania at home and drew Scotland on the road. Lithuania and Scotland are bad teams. Greece play the most negative football in this group and they're not loaded with talent, but mediocrity might see them through to the quarters in a poor group.
Projected Starting Lineup (4-3-3)
GK Kostas Chalkias LB Jose Holebas CB Avraam Papadopoulos CB Sokratis Papastathopoulos RB Vasilis Torosidis CM Giorgos Karagounis CM Kostas Katsouranis CM Grigoris Makos LF Giorgos Samaras CF Theofanis Gekas RF Sotiris Ninis
Sotiris Ninis: He's the only player with creativity and youth that figures to start for Greece. He'll be the team's biggest creative outlet and will be forced to carry Karagounis, who is on the verge of becoming a corpse, and Samaras, who has been a corpse for the last two years.
Third in Group A, but not by much: If Greece were in any of the other groups, picking them last would be an easy call. Instead, they're in the worst group in the competition. Russia is the best team in the group, while Poland's combination of their high-end talent and the home crowd should see them through. Greece could easily overtake one (or both of them) if they're on top of their games, but third place seems like the most likely result.