Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Qualifier Preview: Greece at Switzerland

This is the third post in a series of closer examinations of 2010 World Cup qualifiers being played this weekend.

Greece at Switzerland, in Basel on Saturday, is the only match, of the 40 being contested, that pits teams tied atop their groups in points. In this case, with 13 points each atop Europe's Group 2. So this is the definition of a swing match.

Both Greece and Switzerland have comparatively modest international soccer histories, as their small size and middling domestic club leagues might suggest. Switzerland has been to the World Cup finals eight times, which sounds impressive, but six of those came in 1966 or earlier, and Greece has played in the finals only once, in 1994 -- but it did win the Euro Cup in 2004, in a stunning upset.

Who gets to go to South Africa next year? We suspect it will be the winner of this match, if there is one.

Switzerland would seem to have a psychological advantage; the Swiss won the first match, in Piraeus, Greece, 2-1, last October. Alexander Frei scored on a penalty in the 41st minute, Angelos Charisteas tied the game in the 68th minute, and then Blaise Kufo, a native of the Congo, scored the decisive goal, in the 77th minute.

Kufo, a veteran striker, provides Switzerland with both a psychological and physical advantage. Naturalized in 2002, after several seasons in the Swiss pro league, in a country which hands out citizenship very, very rarely, Kufo has done his bit for Swiss sport by scoring a goal in five of the team's six Group 2 games so far.

Greece is led by German coach Otto Rehhagel, who has managed the team since 2001 -- a tenure truly remarking for its length. He was the architect of the 2004 Euro stunner, but he also was in charge when Greece failed to make the 2006 World Cup and went out in the first round of Euro 2008, scoring only one goal in group play.

Greece has played a conservative, counter-attacking style under Rehhagel's guidance. This is not a team known for an abundance of skill players. The Greeks are heavily dependent on strikers Theofanis Gekas and Charisteas for scoring; they each have four goals from Greece's 12 in group play.

Gekas led the Bundesliga in scoring with 20 goals for VfL Bochum two seasons ago, and had 13 for Bayer Leverkusen last season, and currently is on loan to Portsmouth of the English Premier League. Charisteas this season is on loan to Bayer Leverkusen from Nuremberg, and has 23 goals in 77 national team appearances.

The rock at the back of the Greek defense, which has yielded only four goals in six matches, is towering (1.99m, or 6-foot-6) goalkeeper Kostas Chalkias. Giourkas Seitaridis, Avraam Papdopoulos and Vasilis Torosidis are regulars in the back line. Kostas Katsouranis is a fixture at holding midfield, and captain Giorgos Karagounis runs the offense.

Frei, just off three seasons with Borussia Dortmund, is Switzerland's all-time national team goal scorer, with 37. He and Kufo have accounted for nine of the squad's 13 goals in six qualifying matches so far. They are the definition of wily veterans; at ages 30 and 34, respectively, they may be the oldest starting forwards among the globe's serious soccer countries.

Gokhan Inler, who plays for Udinese in Italy's Seria A, and Tranquillo Barnetta of Bayer Leverkusen and Benjamin Huggel of FC Basel are fixtures at midfield.

The Swiss have been a little leaky in the back, giving up six goals (thus, Greece leads them on goal-differential, 12-4 to 11-6) Stephane Grichting is a regular in the back line, and young Diego Benaglio, 25, who plays for Bundesliga champion Wolfsburg, has gotten most of the time in goal.

Now, the ramifications: A victory by either side will put it in very good stead.

Greece will be favored in its final three matches -- at group minnow Moldova, home against Latvia and home to the No. 2 minnow, Luxembourg. There would seem to be at least six points there, and nine wouldn't be surprising.

Switzerland has a tougher path, and therefore would be well-advised to grab three points in Basel on Saturday. The Swiss finish with matches at Latvia (still hoping to finish second), at Luxembourg and home to Israel, which at this writing is still in contention for second, certainly.

Whoever wins this group probably will be considered one of the weakest of the 13 European clubs to reach South Africa. But getting there in the first place is more than half the battle.

1 comment:

  1. How is Greece or Switzerland one of the weaker European teams that will make it to the WC??

    They are certainly not weak teams. May I remind you that they are both in the top 15 of the Fifa Rankings? And also highly ranked in the Elo rankings? Take a look at Group 3 and tell me they are stronger than Switzerland or Greece, what about Group 1 with Hungary and Denmark leading the chase?