Greece gears up for Israel adventure

Coach Otto Rehhagel has his team primed for Saturday's qualifier in Ramat Gan.

israel soccer team excellent pic 224.88 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
israel soccer team excellent pic 224.88
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
The Greek squad will arrive in Tel Aviv on Thursday in a positive mood ahead of its crucial World Cup qualifying clash with Israel, but coach Otto Rehhagel has warned them not to expect an easy game. "I want you to concentrate very well during the game because it will be very difficult against Israel," Rehhagel said during a team talk this week. "Israel has a very good team. It is not France or Italy but it's a very good team. We must concentrate 100 percent throughout the 90 minutes. We have played a lot of tough games but we can manage." Greece tops Group 2 going into Saturday's game with three wins and one loss from its four qualifiers, a point ahead of the Israelis. However, a home defeat to Switzerland in its last competitive match in October left it in a precarious position. Greek soccer journalist Peter Xerokostas, who covers the national team for daily newspaper Ethnos, said Rehhagel is doing his best to ensure the players keep their feet on the ground. "The Greek players are quite optimistic but the coach has been more prudent than the players," Xerokostas told The Jerusalem Post by phone from Athens on Wednesday. "He wants to stop the players from being too relaxed and to make sure they are as focused as if they are playing a big team," he added. "He is German so we don't expect anything less." Veteran PAOK Salonika goalkeeper Konstantinos Chalkias is once again expected to start between the sticks for the visiting side, and summed up the atmosphere among the Greek's after the team trained together in Athens on Wednesday. "We are first in the standings and this is very positive for us. Our goal is to stay first until the last game," he said. Greece captain, Portsmouth midfielder Angelos Basinas, said the team will be going out for the win. "The game in Tel Aviv will be very hard. All the players will give 100 percent. We are ready to take the three points," he said. Greece, which is currently ranked 19th, one place below Israel, in the FIFA rankings, exploded onto the international stage in the summer of 2004, when it shocked host Portugal in the final of the European Championships. However, it has been far from smooth sailing since then, and even though the Greeks qualified for last year's Euros, the team was a massive disappointment, losing all three group games. "We didn't expect to take the championship, but the Greek people expected the team to play some good games," Xerokostas said of Euro 2008. "But now the team has put the tournament behind it and has improved. The last time Greece qualified for a World Cup final was in the USA in 1994, so if we manage to make it again it will be seen as a huge achievement." The 70-year-old Rehhagel is one of the most experienced coaches in international soccer, having won three German Bundesliga titles with Werder Bremen and Bayern Munich before taking over the Greek team in 2001. He is known for being unpredictable in choosing his lineup, and for playing a practical style of soccer where the final result is considered far more important than the performance. The Greeks are a very experienced team, with Panathinaikos midfielder Georgios Karagounis and Basinas anchoring the midfield, and Xerokostas said he believes it will be a very close match. "Israel is very strong in Ramat Gan where it has only lost three times there in its last 31 games. I think they have found a way not to lose," the journalist said. "It depends if Kashtan asks his players to go for a win or not to lose. Both teams don't score a lot of goals. Rehaggel wants to get a victory. He asks the players first for the result. If a win can come along with good and fancy football, then that is OK." Like Israel, Greece has a number of squad members who play abroad but have not been given many minutes this season. One of the most prominent such players is Portsmouth striker Fanis Gekas, who moved on loan to the English Premier League team in February from Bayer Leverkusen but has yet to make an appearance at Pompey since manager Tony Adams was sacked a week after he signed. Xerokostas, however, believes Gekas will start for Greece despite his lack of recent playing time as "Rehhagel trusts the players he knows." Current Leverkusen striker Angelos Charisteas is also expected to make the first 11 and play alongside Gekas. even though he rarely starts for the German side. "They are different players," Xerokostas explained. "Gekas is good with ball-to-feet and inside the area, while Charisteas is strong in the air and fights with the defenders a bit like England's Peter Crouch."