Key Battles That Will Shape Greece's World Cup Clash with Ivory Coast
As Greece head into their final group game against Ivory Coast, they find themselves in a familiar situation.
At Euro 2012, they needed a win against Russia to progress in the tournament. It was a win they managed to achieve in spite of being substantial underdogs in the fixture.
Greece have certainly overachieved in recent years in relation to their nation's size. Given they won Euro 2004, qualified for the World Cup in 2010 and 2014 and reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2012, it is easy to take Greece's relative success for granted.
In truth, it is a rather remarkable series of feats. It would perhaps be unwise to bet against them springing a surprise on Tuesday. Here are some of the key battles they will be hoping to win.
With thanks to Sleepy Nik for his invaluable tactical input.
Greece's Wide Players vs. Ivory Coast's Adventurous Full-Backs
Fernando Santos has a host of options out of which to construct his front three, but at the forefront of his mind should be hitting the space behind the ultra-adventurous Ivorian full-backs, Arthur Boka and Serge Aurier.
It is possible that Santos could start Panagiotis Kone in the wide-right berth of the front three. Dimitris Salpingidis and Giannis Fetfatzidis started there against Colombia and Japan respectively, but neither of them were able to make a significant impact on proceedings.
Kone may well offer superior ball retention, and his direct running will allow him to get closer to Kostas Mitroglou, assuming the Fulham man is fit and selected. Mitroglou was badly isolated against Japan before going off with an injury.
Selecting Kone in attack would also free up a midfield slot, allowing Giorgos Karagounis to be given his first start in this World Cup. Karagounis' superior distribution should enable Greece to find their wide men and capitalise on positional advantage.
While Greece left-back Jose Holebas may be defensively suspect, he is quick and a fine crosser of the ball. Therefore, he should be able to contribute to Greece's counter-attacking play, which will need to be a good deal more dynamic than it was against Colombia or Japan in order to make an impact against the Ivorians.
Greece's Midfield Shield vs. Ivory Coast's Attacking Midfielders and Full-Backs
Ivory Coast's midfield, built around the imperious Yaya Toure, boasts tremendous attacking prowess. With that in mind—and the aforementioned attacking intent of their full-backs—it is essential that Greece's midfield shield is operating at its best.
With Kostas Katsouranis suspended following his sending off during the Japan game, and with Kone playing further forward, Santos may look to either Alexandros Tziolis or Panagiotis Tachtsidis to shore up his defence.
Though the latter would provide more energy, Tziolis has the experience and tactical discipline that could be crucial in this particular encounter.
With Giannis Maniatis acting as the classic "runner" between defence and attack, his energy will be crucial in marshalling the threat posed by Toure.
It will be critical that Maniatis keeps his emotions in check during what will be a testing encounter—something he reportedly failed to do when he was rumoured to have booked a flight home following a training ground dispute, per the Guardian.
Ivorian forward Gervinho is likely to focus on the defensive frailties of Holebas, so it is of major importance that both Tziolis and Maniatis usher the former Arsenal player across to the left-hand side of the pitch as much as possible.
Greece's Attackers Dropping Deep to Press Cheick Tiote
Despite having a fantastic debut season in the Premier League, Cheick Tiote struggled last season. However, despite his limitations, he is fundamental to his country’s system and initiates many of their attacks from his deep central position.
Mitroglou (and Georgios Samaras) will have to join Karagounis and Maniatis in pressing the midfielder as soon as he has the ball.
While Tiote is not Andrea Pirlo, he is good at finding the right pass, either distributing the ball to the wings or into Toure as he embarks on one of his trademark drives up the field.
Greece could look to pressure Tiote early in the game, perhaps forcing him into a lunging challenge—as he is inclined to do—to draw an early caution.
Winning back possession from Tiote will enable Greece to get the ball into Karagounis’ feet in advanced positions. Karagounis can then release the Greek forwards into the space behind the potentially static and vulnerable Ivorian central-defensive partnership. If Mitroglou is fit and in form, he may be able to profit from this.
Santos will certainly be hoping he does, as it will be key to Greece's success.