Greece are firmly back in business, sitting proudly atop 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ European qualifying Group 2 on maximum points from three games, scoring eight goals and conceding none in the process.
The superb start seemed a remote possibility in the aftermath of the Greeks’ hugely disappointing UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland, where they arrived as European champions but promptly set an unwanted record with the statistically worst trophy defence in the history of the competition. "I’m actually not that disappointed, because I know what we’re really capable of," coach Otto Rehhagel insisted at the time. His words now appear prophetic.
Veteran German coaching duel
Rehhagel’s men have patently recaptured the form which propelled them to the 2004 continental title, once again falling back on experience and proven talent. Five of the current first-choice line-up - Chalkias, Dellas, Basinas, Karagounis and Lymperopoulos – are over the age of 32. Seven of the squad which triumphed in Portugal are still part of the national set-up, and eight players can point to 44 caps or more.
In stark contrast, the Greeks’ next qualifying opponents rate as relative novices. The Swiss team boasts just three players with more than 44 caps, namely Ludovic Magnin, Alexander Frei and Murat Yakin. However, lack of experience is not a charge to be levelled at 59-year-old Switzerland boss Ottmar Hitzfeld, whose head-to-head with the 70-year-old Rehhagel promises to be one of the highlights of Wednesday’s meeting.
Both coaches can look back on outstanding records in the German Bundesliga. Otto Rehhagel led Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern to a total of eight trophies, although even that pales before Ottmar ‘The General’ Hitzfeld, who collected silverware on no fewer than 19 occasions with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern.
Rehhagel is now determined to follow up the triumph of 2004 by leading the Greeks to what would be only their second FIFA World Cup finals. The men in blue and white harbour less than fond memories of their solitary appearance to date, where they lost to Argentina (4-0), Bulgaria (4-0) and Nigeria (2-0) at USA 1994 and packed for home with no goals scored, ten conceded and no points whatsoever.
Tough task ahead for Hitzfeld
South Africa would be Switzerland’s sixth appearance at the finals, where they have reached the quarter-finals three times and the Round of 16 twice. At the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany, Ukraine needed penalties to eliminate the Swiss in the last sixteen.
However, even though the qualifying campaign is just a few games old, the Swiss already face an uphill struggle. How they must envy their midweek opponents’ flawless start, as the Euro 2008 co-hosts are still reeling from a torrent of criticism unleashed by their shock 2-1 home defeat to Luxembourg, a crippling setback only partially alleviated by last weekend’s laboured 2-1 victory over Latvia. The Swiss opened their campaign with a 2-2 draw away to Israel.
"There’s no reason for euphoria because we’ve finally won. We simply had to free ourselves and battle back from the humiliation against Luxembourg, and that’s what we’ve done," summarised Hitzfeld, well aware that anything less than a place in South Africa would rate as failure. The Greeks have no such concerns following a comfortable 3-0 success against Moldova, including a brace from Nuremberg striker Angelos Charisteas. The 28-year-old is one of nine players in the squad who ply their trade abroad.
The history books at least favour the Swiss, as Greece have only won two of six previous home meetings. However, Otto Rehhagel is the last coach on earth to be sidetracked by statistics. In his own memorable words: sometimes you lose, sometimes the other team wins.