They may have been surprise champions in 2004, but there was little shocking about their 2008 qualification, which was nothing if not impressive. Greece were the strongest of all the qualifiers for Euro 2008 in terms of points, thanks to their 31 points amassed. That total was borne of ten wins, just one defeat and a single draw.
The Pirate Ship were drawn into Group C, arguably the weakest of the groups, which helps explain their amazing total. At the start, though, there was no obvious top candidate between Turkey, Greece, Norway, Hungary, Bosnia, Moldova and Malta. As defending Champions of the tournament Greece were given top seed in the qualifying tournament; Turkey, meanwhile, hadn’t been at a major tournament since 2002, although they did manage third place at the World Cup.
Norway had failed to make a major tournament since 2000 and their glory days of the mid to latenineties seemingly long behind them, whilst Hungary, often remembered as the first team to ever beat England at Wembley, haven’t been at a major tournament since 1986. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Moldova are both developing nations as far as football is concerned, and while Malta could boast Coventry City’s Michael Mifsud in their striking line-up are still in the ranks of minnows.
Point To Prove
Still, there was work needing to be done. Greece failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2006 and had generally struggled to live up to their billing as European Champions after their surprise victory at the Euro 2004 tournament in Portugal. They first failed to make any sort of impression at the Confederations Cup tournament in the summer of 2005 which they were invited to as a result of their victory the year before. They then wound up fourth in a tight Group C for World Cup qualifying, finishing behind Ukraine, Turkey and Denmark, albeit only four points off the top of the group.
Therefore the relatively weak group they were placed into was something of a blessing for Greece, and one that they took full advantage of with three consecutive wins to start off with. They started away in Moldova, where a late goal from Lyberopoulos was enough to claim the victory. Greece repeated the 1-0 score line - a score they more or less patented at the Euro 2004 tournament - at home to Norway, Katsouranis getting the all-important strike on this occasion.
Greece then took all three points in Sarajevo at the expense of Bosnia-Herzegovina with a slightly flattering 0-4 score line; three of the goals came in the final 10 minutes after an early penalty from Euro 2004 top scorer Angelos Charisteas had set the Greeks on their way. Late strikes from Patsatzoglou, Samaras and Katsouranis gave the score slightly uneven look to it.
Then came hte clash of the titans. Greece went into the national holiday meeting with arch rivals Turkey with a 100% record but despite taking the lead in the 5th minute through Sotirios Kyrgiakos against an injury-hit Crescent-Stars outfit, they were unable to translate their excellent beginning into a win. Turkey fought back, grabbing an equaliser before half-time, and after the break took up the reins and ran out 1-4 winners thanks to goals from Gokhan, Tumer and Gokdeniz.
Greece slipped to second in the group as a result of the defeat, but bounced back well by winning the next three games to keep the pressure on the Turks. A narrow victory at improving Malta set them on their way, with a penalty from Real Mallorca midfielder Basinas in the second half proving crucial. Greece finished off the 2006/07 season by building on their momentum with two more wins; a 2-0 triumph against Hungary and a nervy 2-1 success over Moldova.
Otto Rehhagel’s men continued their good form into 2007/08, starting the campaign with a 2-2 draw in Oslo. Norway's not an easy place to go, but twice Greece squandered the lead. After goals from Krygiakos, English based pair Riise and Carew pegged them back.
Still, the Hellenic men maintained their one point lead over Turkey with a 3-2 win over Bosnia at home, setting them up nicely for the trip to Istanbul to dispute the group leadership situation. Abvoe all, they knew that a victory would assure them of qualification with two games to spare.
An entertaining game with Turkey was decided late on when Frankfurt striker Amanatidis struck in the 79th minute, although Greece had to survive a late scare when right back Arda Turan hit the post. The Greeks had done it again.
With their passage to Austria/Switzerland assured, a carefree Blues side rattled in five against Malta, Leverkusen striker Gekas helping himself to a hat-trick and thus putting the Greeks into an unassailable lead at the top of the table.
Greece finished off their campaign with a trip to Budapest where they came from a goal down to win 1-2 and record the best points total of all the qualified teams.
What can we take from this? Perhaps it's that the Greeks' defensive stance has begun to falter. They managed to score in all of their games, but at the back they were relatively open with 10 goals conceded. That's the highest total of any of the qualified teams who played 12 games in the preliminary round (Poland, with 12 goals again, conceded more, but played 14 games in Group A). What's more, several non-qualified teams let in fewer (Bulgaria and Finland both shipped a mere 7.)
If Greece can tighten up at the back and still keep scoring the goals, then whilst a repeat of their success at Euro 2004 is unlikely they could be more of a factor then most experts and pundits believe.
For now, they're underdogs. Just as they like it.