Greece 0 Russia 1: Holders throw off the shackles at last but it's too little, too late
Russia bounce back from drubbing in opening match to set up shoot-out with Sweden
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Sunday 15 June 2008
Four years ago the narrative was an epic, the Hellenic heroes returning from Portugal with the European Championship trophy, totally against expectation. This summer the tale is a Greek tragedy, the holders stumbling out of the competition because of their own mistakes.
Having conceded a daft goal to Konstantin Zyryanov after 33 minutes, Greece threw off their self-imposed shackles and created a string of chances. Not only did they fail to take any, Igor Akinfeyev in the Russian goal was barely stretched. They remained the only team in the competition not to score.
The one time that Greece did "score", being gifted a "goal" by Russia's error-prone defence, it was narrowly ruled offside. So Greece go out, Spain top Group D, and Russia and Sweden meet in Innsbruck on Wednesday for the right to meet the rampant Holland in the last eight.
"In 2004 a miracle happened," said Otto Rehhagel, Greece's coach. "A miracle happens once in 30 years. That is why you call it a miracle. If it happened every time it would not be a miracle. I knew we would not be able to waltz through the group, we are not that good, but we took part and are not the only ones who will be kicked out.
"We played a lot better than against Sweden. Unfortunately, and this is not new, we do not manage to score goals. That is why we wanted to start from a tight defence, to go the distance and strike a goal. We are not the type of team to score three goals a match."
In an attempt to produce goals Rehhagel dispensed with the sweeper system which had looked so anachronistic against Sweden, moving to the 4-3-3 formation with which he, and Greece, won Euro 2004. Guus Hiddink, Russia's Dutch coach, axed defender Roman Shirokov after the 4-1 defeat by Spain, and recalled Sergei Ignashevich. An inveterate tinkerer, he refashioned his side into a formation which resembled Spain's.
"I am happy with the reaction to the Spain game," said Hiddink. "This team can play creative football with a lot of good movement, but do not always smell where the danger is. This time everyone did his job defensively very well."
In truth Russia were again better going forward, except their finishing was as shoddy as the Greeks'. The game was thus almost inevitably settled by a moment of defensive lunacy. Antonis Nikopolidis rushed out of his six-yard box to chase an overhit cross but Sergei Semak got there first. He whipped the ball back into the box with an overhead kick. It fell perfectly for Zyryanov, unmarked four yards out, and he tapped in.
Russia had made a vibrant start inspired by their adventurous left-back Yuri Zhirkov. Diniyar Bilyaletdinov drove over after 11 minutes and Nikopolidis was forced to athletically tip over a shot from Roman Pavlyuchenko two minutes later. Dmitri Torbinsky and Zhirkov threatened before Greece could bring about a semblance of control.
For the holders, creating chances was one thing, scoring them was another entirely. When Angelos Basinas's delicately floated free-kick reached Angelos Charisteas, match-winner in the 2004 final, he headed only air. Igor Semshov was taken so much by surprise he allowed the ball to bounce off his shoulder, and just past his own post. It was the same in the second half when Greece delivered the best football of their time here – better, indeed, than much of their play in Portugal four years ago.
In quick succession Charisteas missed a sitter, Georgios Karagounis stung Akinfeyev's hands with a fierce drive, Nikos Liberopoulos drew the keeper into tipping his header over, and Basinas blazed over when he was well-placed.
Inevitably this approach led to a defensive vulnerability and Russia had chances to put the game beyond the champions. Pavlyuchenko broke down the left but fired into the side netting. The big striker then neatly back-heeled Zhirkov's pass into the path of Bilyaletdinov but he flashed his shot past the far post.
The misses almost proved costly. With four minutes to go, Akinfeyev collided with his defender as Fanis Gekas ran on to a flick-on. Charisteas tapped in, the Greek support went wild, then everyone noticed a flag up, signalling Gekas had been offside. A borderline decision, it puts Russia in sight of going beyond the group stage at a tournament for the first time since the break-up of the Soviet Union.
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