Friday’s match between Germany and Greece is the biggest mismatch of the Euro 2012 quarterfinals. The Greeks will need one of their most senior players, Kostas Katsouranis, to step up and lead them if they are to have any chance of upsetting the odds.
Now marginal favourites with most bookies, Germany came into the last eight on the back of three wins out of three in the so-called "Group of Death". In fact, Germany have won all 13 competitive fixtures they have played since narrowly losing to Spain 1-0 in the semifinals of the last World Cup.
Greece, by contrast, went into their final Group A match bottom of the table having drawn their first game and lost their second, before progressing thanks to a hard-fought 1-0 win over Russia.
Germany—finalists four years ago—have retained most of the key participants of that campaign but have also ushered in some of the world’s most talented young players into the set-up. Joachim Loew’s squad is the youngest ever to enter a European Championship. The average age is 24.52, almost three years younger than Greece’s (27.17).
Mario Gomez is the tournament’s joint-top scorer. Given that two of the other players to match his current haul of three goals—Russia’s Alan Dzagoev and Croatia’s Mario Mandzukic—are both already out, the Bayern Munich man is now the favourite to claim the Golden Boot. Greece’s two main strikers, Theofanis Gekas and Dimitrios Salpingidis, have netted six international goals between them over the past two years.
Given all that, it is no surprise that few are giving Fernando Santos's players a prayer of making it any further in the tournament.
Their cause has not been helped by the suspension of their captain and midfield lynchpin Giorgos Karagounis. The Greece skipper, who scored the winner against Russia, looked inconsolable when he was booked in that match, and no wonder. The yellow card was the 35-year-old’s second of the group stage, ruling him out of the quarterfinal through suspension.
With Karagounis out it is up to his vice-captain, Katsouranis, to try and lead his team to an unlikely victory. While Karagounis is a steely presence in the centre of the park, his main asset is his creativity and set-piece expertise. It is Katsouranis who is the real midfield enforcer, a deep-lying battler who protects his defence with stubborn yet classy resolve.
In spite of that, he has got more than his fair share of goals for the national team. Since making his debut in 1998, Katsouranis has bagged nine goals in 94 international appearances, while his strike rate at club level has been consistently higher than that throughout his career.
Like his midfield cohort for club and country—both he and Karagounis play for Athens giants Panathinaikos—Katsouranis is a seasoned campaigner. He was part of the Greek side in 2004 which fought and ground its way to victory in the tournament, defeating hosts Portugal in the opening match and again in the final.
He was named Greek Footballer of the Year the year after lifting the Henri Delaunay Trophy, and he was also voted Benfica’s Player of the Season in his third and final term at the Lisbon club.
Despite turning 33 the day before the Germany clash, Katsouranis has not lost his legs. He is one of only four players in the Greek squad—along with forward Georgios Samaras and defenders Giannis Manitatis and Vasilis Torosidis—to have played every minute of the tournament so far. In addition to that, he also played from start to finish in each of the nine qualifying matches he played.
He will need all of that energy and experience when he faces off against a fearfully quick and creative German midfield. Katsouranis can leave the handling of goal-hanger extraordinaire Gomez to his centre-backs, which is just as well—he has to find a way of marshalling Mesut Ozil, Thomas Mueller, Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and even Sami Khedira for at least 90 minutes, perhaps even 120.
Not only will Katsouranis have to watch his own man, but he will also have to make sure his fellow midfielders—most likely two from Konstantinos Fortounis, Grigoris Makos and Giorgos Fotakis—are doing their job too. But then, that is why he is vice-captain. His leadership skills are not in question.
In any case, Katsouranis has in the past been able to shackle a midfield containing Luis Figo, Deco, Rui Costa and Cristiano Ronaldo not once but twice at Euro 2004.
They said he couldn’t do it then, and he proved them wrong. They are saying the same now. Can he silence the doubters and upset the favourites a second time?