It's the scenario teams dream of. A win, you're in; a loss, you go home. That will be the case for Greece and Croatia when they face each other on Friday night. The winner will win Group F and earn automatic entry into the European Football Championship, which will be hosted by Poland and Ukraine in June 2012.
Greece will welcome in Croatia to a rowdy Athens crowd on Friday. Greece has remained undefeated under coach Fernando Santos, who took over for Otto Rehagel in July 2010. In second place in Group F, Greece trails Croatia by only one point.
Over their last five games Greece has two wins and three draws. Wins over Israel and Malta in Euro qualifying and draws with Bosnia-Herzegovnia, against Ecuador in New York and a disappointing draw in Latvia in their last match.
Croatia, the group leader with 20 points, has been unbeaten in its last five fixtures. Wins over Israel, Malta and Georgia allowed them to retake the lead over Greece. Draws against Ireland and France on the road show their overall good form.
Slavan Bilic will try to lead Croatia back to a major tournament after missing the 2010 World Cup. After reaching the quarterfinals in Euro 2008, there is a lot of pressure on Bilic to have this team qualify for next year's Euro automatically.
Croatia: Stipe Pletikosa (GK), Verdan Corluka (RB), Josip Simunic (CB), Dejan Lovern (CB), Ivan Strinic (RB), Niko Kranjcar (M), Luka Modric (M), Ognjen Vukojevic (M), Tomislav Dujmovic (M), Eduardo (F) and Mario Mandzukic (F)
Greece: Alexandros Tzorvas (GK), Loukas Vyntra (RB), Avraam Papadopoulos (CB), Sokratis Papastathopoulos (CB), Vassilis Torosidis (LB), Alexandros Tzolis (M), Kostas Katsouranis (M), Georgios Karagounis (Captain), Dmitrios Salpagidis (F), Fanis Gekas (F) and Georgios Samaras (F)
Fernando Santos likes more offense and will use either a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 system for the game against Croatia.
Players out due to injury:
Croatia: Ivo Illcevic
Greece: Sotiris Ninis, Giannis Fetfatzidis, Panagiotis Kone and Michalis Sifakis.
Darijo Srna will miss this important game against Greece. The Croatian international will serve a one-game suspension for the accumulation of yellow cards in the qualifiers. Out of seven games, he also missed a game due to yellow card accumulation.
Darijo has one goal and three assists. These assists came from setting up half of Croatia's goals in the last two games.
This loss is huge for Croatia, who will be missing one of their hottest players. Luka Modric will have to pick up his game to help Croatia.
Modric has only played in five games this year for Tottenham as he was hoping for a transfer to a big club. While Tottenham entertained offers from bigger clubs, they decided not to transfer Modric, resulting in his sitting out a game to force a move. After that didn't happen, Modric was named a starter.
Fanis Gekas' return to the Greek national football team adds an offensive spark that was missing.
Gekas is a former Bundesliga Golden Boot winner. Not only is he a top striker on the club level, but he is also a top striker on the national level, adding 10 goals in helping Greece qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
After Gekas' retirement from the national team, the Greeks struggled to find goals. His return can only help. In 52 career games for Greece, Gekas has tallied 20. He is currently fifth on Greece's all-time goal scoring list.
Gekas' best game game against Latvia was when his hat trick allowed Greece to finish second in their group in the World Cup qualifying and got them into a playoff against Ukraine.
Big man in middle
Sokratis Papastathopoulos is a big, physical central defender who will make his presence known throughout the game. In the manner of Traianos Dellas who anchored the Greek team in 2004 to a championship, the younger Sokratis will anchor this team.
The two defensive midfielders in Kostas Katsouranis and Alexandros Tzolis have seen it all. Katsouranis was on the 2004 team that shocked the world by winning the Euro. Katsouranis has also helped the team qualify for the 2008 Euro and 2010 World Cup. Kostas has over 80 caps on the national team.
Alexandros Tzolis will complement Katsouranis in Fernando Santos' 4-2-3-1 formation. Tzolis has been another mainstay of this team. With 27 caps to date, Tzolis has been a part of teams that qualified for the Euro and World Cups.
Besides seeing time with the national team, Tzolis has played big games for PAO in the Champions League before transferring to Siena in Italy and, eventually, to Racing Santander in Spain. Tzolis will be called upon to lead the attack from the defensive midfield.
Avraam Papadooulos has quietly done the job as Sokratis' partner in the middle. Avraam was voted one of the Top Four defenders last year in Greece. While not a big name, he has been a rock-solid defender for his club, Olympiacos. Avraam is no stranger to big games, playing in the knockout round in the Champions League and three Greek Cup Finals.
The Georgios Karaiskakis Stadium has been the home of the Greek national football team since it reopened for the Athens Olympics in 2004. The stadium holds over 33,000 and is also home to Olympiacos of Pireaus.
The venue hasn't been good to any visiting team on either the club side or the national side. Greece has been undefeated in almost three years of games in Greece, with their last loss coming from Switzerland in the 2008 World Cup qualifier.
Overall, since 2008, Greece is 16-3-2 at home in qualifications or friendly fixtures. Teams have a hard time dealing with the heat of Athens. Add the crowd and it makes a difficult task even more difficult.
On to Poland/ Ukraine the easy way
Greece will not be very good host to Croatia and will retake first place in Group F with a win in Athens on Friday.
The Greeks' lineup in this fixture will be key veteran holdovers who will be able to use what they learned against Ukraine (Europe World Cup playoff) and in the World Cup to beat Croatia. I expect the Greeks to come out hot early to get the home crowd behind them and get an early lead. If they will be able to get that first goal, it will be hard for the Croatians to score against the Greek defense.
Having only conceded six goals in 12 games under Santos, goals will be at a premium. In their first match in Croatia, the Greek defense gave up only two scoring chances. Don't look for that to change much on Friday.
This looks like it's going to be a 1-0 game. With that said, I'll take the home team in a game to decide who gets the automatic entry. The Greek veterans will figure a way to get it done.
Greece 1 Croatia 0