Steve Tongue: Portugal face Rehhagel's iron men and the burden of history

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The Independent Football

Against the odds, they were awarded the right to host Euro 2004, and now they have a glorious opportunity to win it. More than that, Portugal have the chance to earn recognition tonight as a serious football nation by winning a major competition at last.

Almost 40 years ago, Nobby Stiles put the frighteners on Eusebio in a World Cup semi-final, ending any hope of the national team emulating Benfica's achievements at club level; in the 1984 European Championship and again four years ago, there were semi-final defeats when France scored cruel late goals in extra time. Now Portugal have taken one giant step further, and the task is to avoid stumbling against a team whose prospects of winning the competition were rated as marginally better than those of Switzerland and Latvia. No wonder the Portuguese nation is agog.

Beware, however, Greeks who superficially look more like a gift horse than one of the Trojan variety. Otto Rehhagel's men have been characterised and resented as dull plodders, which does justice to neither the players nor their coach. Go back three weeks to that first Saturday night in Porto, home of the European club champions, when the host nation were supposed to set their country and the competition alight by making short work of the 100-1 outsiders.

What happened? Greece hit them on the break and hit them hard, taking advantage of errors in selection and the sort of first-night nerves that produced an early goal for Giorgos Karagounis and then a converted penalty when Manchester United's Cristiano Ronaldo, over-anxious to make an impression as a second-half substitute, made a rash challenge on Giourkas Seitaridis. Ronaldo's headed goal was too late to make any difference, and Portugal's great adventure might have been over almost before it began.

The Brazilian World Cup-winning coach, Luiz Felipe Scolari, salvaged it by boldly casting aside three ageing members of the much hyped "golden generation", as well as Chelsea's £13m acquisition Paulo Ferreira, whose error had led to the first goal. Assisted by some sharp-eyed refereeing decisions (sending off Russia's goalkeeper before half-time, disallowing Sol Campbell's goal), the younger, fresher team subsequently redeemed themselves, fully deserving the semi-final victory over Holland.

So at kick-off time this evening, Luis Figo alone of that generation of under-achievers will be out on the pitch. After Scolari's ruthless substitution in the quarter-final against England, dragging him off just as he was about to take a corner on the far side of the stadium, the 31-year-old icon went straight to the dressing room, either to pray or to sulk, according to whom you believe. But, reprieved by his team-mates' comeback, he then played like the old Figo against the Dutch.

"A sensational game, a match-winning performance," his former manager at Sporting Lisbon and Barcelona, Sir Bobby Robson, called it. "He worked very hard, showed immense skill and worked for the team. He wasn't a good captain after what he did the other day, when he walked off the pitch after being subbed, I didn't like that. But he's a great boy and a great footballer."

Tonight Figo will play his 110th and last international, hoping it will become the most memorable of them all. To win a major trophy for Portugal has been "my objective since 1991", he says, in reference to the year that he and his contemporaries took the World Youth Cup amid forecasts of a glittering future, which somehow never quite sparkled as it should have done. Throwing in younger or less familiar faces like those of Miguel, Ricardo Carvalho, Deco and Ronaldo after the defeat by Greece added a new sheen.

The one thing the side lack is a natural goalscorer, neither Benfica's Nuno Gomes nor Paris St-Germain's Pauleta having established undisputed claim to the main striker's position despite individual records of nearly one goal every two internationals. Helder Postiga, who stunned Tottenham supporters more than anyone with his headed intervention when the tie against England seemed lost, waits in the wings, but Nuno Gomes would appear the better bet tonight.

Maniche, the Porto midfielder who became a strong candidate to claim the goal of the tournament with his curling 25-yarder against Holland, has stressed the need to take a chance when it comes, and to remain calm and patient. None of those aims are easily met by a host nation in a final, let alone one bearing such a historical burden as Portugal's.

Tactically, they are likely to face the additional imposition of unfamiliar man-for-man marking by the Greeks, sometimes carried out with less regard for the laws of the game than would be desirable. "Closing down [the opposition] is the key," according to Bolton's Stelios Giannakopoulos, who hopes to win the starting place vacated by the suspended Karagounis (booked in every match he played at the tournament). The plan has been perfectly demonstrated in Greece's knockout victories over France and the Czech Republic, proving a more valid strategy than England's one of sitting deep, sitting tight and letting technically superior opponents have the ball.

In delineating the effect Rehhagel, the 65-year-old German, has had on Greek football, it is difficult to avoid stereotyping both countries. As the coach himself described the task he inherited three years ago: "The Greeks play technically accomplished football but there was not enough discipline or togetherness. They were all very good players individually but I've tried to inspire team spirit. It's the team that counts.Rules exist and have to be respected."

Rehhagel found it necessary to make those points more firmly after losing his first match as an international manager 5-1 to Finland. More recently, Greece won their last six Euro 2004 qualifying matches without conceding a goal, which should have alerted punters to a rare act of generosity in the bookmakers' assessment of their chances here.

They have continued in much the same vein, conceding four goals in five matches while advancing to the final by scoring only six. That last figure has induced disapproval among many observers, yet Scolari would do well to remind his men of the number of chances created against them in that opening match. Once they have the ball, Greece often play with three men forward, a tactic which Portugal are one of the few teams in the tournament to emulate.

Hellenic individualism allied to Teutonic discipline, against Iberian flair and the new Brazilian pragmatism. It is a fascinating mix which we can only hope will rise above mere interest to provide a night that will be remembered further afield than either Lisbon or Athens.

A to Z (Antonios to Zagorakis) of the upstarts who spelt trouble for Europe

A mouthful of a team on a mouthwatering journey. Steve Tongue unveils the unlikely glory-seekers

Hellas, poor Yorath. Gabby, Motty, Gary, Ally and the rest will have been doing overtime on their homework ahead of tonight's Euro 2004 final after throwing away the file marked Czech Republic and reaching with some disbelief for the one on Greece. The pronunciation unit will be busy too, though some of the former managers and players employed on these occasions will doubtless settle for the old-pro shorthand of "the big lad at the back".

Viewers and listeners who have not been paying sufficient attention to the darkest of dark horses may also be confused: is Angelos Charisteas the same person as Haristeas? Is Stylianos Gianna- kopoulos anything to do with Stelios of Bolton? (Yes, in both cases.) And where's Nikos Dabizas? (Once worth £2m to Kenny Dalglish, he is now an unused substitute.) Here is Sportsweek's guide to the players who have got Greece where they are - unbelievably - today...

1 Antonios Nikopolidis (Panathinaikos), 48 caps, 0 goals, age 32

The grey-haired goalkeeper has been in an unusual position as second-choice for his club, with whom he has fallen out over a new contract, while remaining an automatic selection for his country. Justified that with six successive shut-outs in the qualifying competition and two more in the past week.

2 Giourkas Seitaridis (Panathinaikos), 23 caps, 0 goals, age 23

A key figure in Otto Rehhagel's defensive strategy, used to man-mark the opposition's best attacker. Even before ruthlessly blotting out Thierry Henry and Milan Baros, he had earned a transfer to the European champions Porto.

5 Traianos Dellas (Roma), 22 caps, 1 goal, age 28

Found Sheffield "too cold" in his two unremarkable seasons at Bramall Lane, which proved to be AEK Athens' gain and now Roma's. Tall and strong, he might have been expected to have scored more goals from set-pieces than the dramatic winner against the Czechs.

6 Angelos Basinas (Panathinaikos), 47 caps, 3 goals, age 28

A regular at Panathinaikos, his only club, for the past seven seasons, the shaven-headed Basinas is a hard-working central midfielder. May have to play a defensive role today keeping a close eye on either Deco or Maniche.

7 Theo Zagorakis (AEK Athens), 94 caps, 0 goals, age 32

The former Leicester City midfielder failed a drugs test three years ago, but the doctors took the blame. Scoring a first goal in his record-equalling 95th international would round off an extraordinary tournament for the Greek captain.

8 Stelios Giannakopoulos (Bolton), 40 caps, 7 goals, age 29

Bolton supporters wanting his name on their shirt are pleased he uses the name Stelios. Has not started since the opening two games, and is now fighting Vassilios Tsiartas for the vacant position on the left of midfield.

9 Angelos Charisteas (Werder Bremen), 32 caps, 10 goals, age 24

Scored three goals in his first two internationals, and added another against England at Old Trafford after Werder Bremen had paid £3m for him. Already a hero after heading the winner against France in the quarter-final.

10 Vassilios Tsiartas (AEK Athens), 63 caps, 11 goals, age 31

Regularly brought on as a substitute, when his left foot can damage tired defences with powerful shooting and accurate crosses - like the corner that brought Thursday night's winning goal in Porto.

11 Themistoklis Nikolaidis (At Madrid), 54 caps, 17 goals, age 30

Oddly, the main shareholder in financially stricken AEK Athens, where 125 goals in seven seasons made him hugely popular. Third-choice striker given a game against France when Vryzas was suspended.

14 Panagiotis Fyssas (Benfica), 36 caps, 4 goals, age 31

Experienced left-back who moved to Lisbon from Panathinaikos this season. Capable of playing further forward, though keeping track of Ronaldo and Figo may not permit much of that.

15 Zisis Vryzas (Fiorentina), 50 caps, 8 goals, age 30

Has survived four seasons in Italy with Perugia and Fiorentina, despite not being a prolific scorer. Missed the quarter-final after collecting yellow cards in two group matches, but returned to partner Charisteas in attack again.

19 Mihalis Kapsis (AEK Athens), 14 caps, 0 goals, age 30

Solid central defender and marker whose father played at Wembley for Panathinaikos in 1971 European Cup final. Came late to the national team, not making debut until a year ago and has stayed in ever since.

20 Giorgos Karagounis (Internazionale), 34 caps, 3 goals, age 27

One booking too many, in the semi-final, has cost the influential midfielder a place in the biggest match of his life. Cannot say he had not been warned as it was his fourth yellow card in consecutive matches during the tournament.

21 Konstantinos Katsouranis (AEK Athens), 11 caps, 0 goals, age 25

A good season for AEK earned the versatile defender or midfielder first a place in the squad, then a substitute's appearance and now a regular berth. Will be used to sit tight on one of Portugal's creative players.

23 Vassilios Lakis (AEK Athens), 32 caps, 3 goals, age 27

Speedy winger used twice in the tournament as a substitute, which could be his role again today if Greece fall behind. Has scored 22 goals for his club in the past two seasons.