For the second tournament in a row, Greece were the worst team in the group, thrashed by a Colombia side at half-speed, yet had somehow managed to keep their hopes alive with a soul-destroying draw against Japan. Surely they couldn’t sneak out of the group again, especially having lost two players to injury within 20 minutes?
Fernando Santos made several alterations to the line-up but stayed with the 4-3-3, while Sabri Lamouchi brought back newly malaria-free Kolo Toure and Salomon Kalou back into his 4-2-1-3, giving Didier Drogba his first start of the tournament ahead of Wilfried Bony who had started the games against Japan and Colombia.
The two formations mirrored one another and the two teams essentially cancelled out one another for most of the first half. The Ivorians would progress with a draw and Greece aren’t suited to having too attack. The Greek wingers did a good job tracking the Ivorian full-backs deep before breaking quickly.
What little attacks they could create came from quick counters and when the Ivory Coast could slow them down, they basically just kicked a few passes around and swung in a cross.
The only notable difference in their strategy was that they were less passive in midfield, pressing the Ivorian players, and this yielded a rewards minutes before half-time when a terrible touch by Cheick Tiote was seized upon by Andreas Samaris to take the lead. It was a cheap goal to concede, especially given the circumstances – exactly the kind of play that gets Greece success.
With the goal, the game changed around: now Ivory Coast were going home and Greece into the second round, and the Europeans were better-equipped for defending a lead than gaining it. Santos reversed his midfield – 37 year-old Georgios Karagounis now played ahead of the midfield two that had previously done his running for him.
Bony was brought on as Lamouchi changed to a 4-2-4 in search of a goal, while the Greeks defended doggedly and countered at speed as they always do. The extra man in attack meant the Greek defence no longer had a man advantage however, and the direct approach was proving as fruitful for the Ivorians as it was for Greece. A dull and closed off game became relatively end to end in the second half.
Ivory Coast eventually got their equaliser with Salomon Kalou squeezing a good ball towards Gervinho, who squared for Bony. Despite claiming back their qualifying position, the Ivorians didn’t make a significant alteration and their defence was still left comparatively unprotected. Midfielder Ismael Diomande was brought on for Drogba, but this simply freed up Yaya Toure to move forward again. The game was in their hands yet the Greeks were still creating chances and, as the match headed into injury time, GeorgiosÂ Samaras was brought down for the winning penalty.
The Ivorians were really the second best team in this group, yet somehow the Greeks have progressed against the odds again. One little mistake was enough to allow the Greeks to play their own game. Still, Greece have shown the flexibility needed to escape a competitive group and it’s difficult to really criticise them even if they aren’t a huge amount of fun.