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Group 6: Pressure on Rehhagel

Published: Tuesday 15 October 2002, 18.50CET
Three points - and the reputation of Greek footballers - are at stake against Armenia.
Published: Tuesday 15 October 2002, 18.50CET

Group 6: Pressure on Rehhagel

Three points - and the reputation of Greek footballers - are at stake against Armenia.
By Patrick Hart

"I am angry, upset and hurt. The players are the ones responsible for this mess and we must stop blaming the coaches." Greek football official Vassilis Gagatsis laid the blame for his country's poor start to the EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign firmly at the feet of Otto Rehhagel's players.

Greece's last chance
But if his tirade on national radio on Monday amounted to a vote of confidence for Rehhagel, it hardly eased the pressure on the German-born coach ahead of Wednesday's Group Six visit of Armenia. Defeats against Spain last month, and Ukraine on Saturday, have prompted talk of a crisis in the national team - with goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis calling the Athens game Greece's "last chance".

No vain ambition
If that is so, then the decline has been quick indeed. Thirteen months ago, the Hellenic Football Federation (EPO), of which Gagatsis is president, chose to invest time and money in a coach capable of leading them to the UEFA European Championship finals for the first time in 24 years. Given the progress of the Alpha Ethniki sides in the UEFA Champions League in recent seasons - Panathinaikos FC were quarter-finalists last term - and the spread of Greek players across Europe, it was no vain ambition.

'Cannot handle pressure'
A year on though, and the stock of Greek players is plummeting. Gagatsis said the nation was "tired of their attitude" after the 2-0 reverse against an under-strength Ukraine. Losing by the same margin to Spain had been no disgrace; what grated was the meekness of the surrender in Kyiv. "Maybe our players cannot handle the responsibility," mused the president. Not helping the former is the current one-month shutdown of the domestic league caused by a row over TV money.

Selection doubt
Gagatsis's loyalty, however, seems to be with Rehhagel - he insists the former 1. FC Kaiserslautern and FC Bayern München man "is and will be the head coach". The Greek press is less convinced and has been pressing the claims of in-form talents like AS Monaco FC midfield player Akis Zikos and AEK Athens's Michalis Kapsis and Kostas Katsouranis.

Chemistry set
Rehhagel defends his choices, saying he wants to work with a set group to achieve the necessary "chemistry", although changes are likely against Armenia. Olympiakos's Christos Patsatzoglou returns at right-back while striker Zisis Vryzas of Perugia FC could take the place of Angelos Haristeas. Midfield players Pantelis Kafes, Stelios Giannakopoulos and Angelos Basinas are other possible additions. Meanwhile, Armenia's Argentinian coach Oscar López has Russian-based star Andrei Movsesyan available again.

Captain of the ship
Armenia surprised many by coming from behind to hold Ukraine last month. Greece will need similar resilience from Rehhagel and his team if they are to remain unbowed in Group 6. "I am the captain of the ship and I have to stay calm and convey this attitude to the players," said the coach. "We have lost arguably our two hardest games. But if we beat Armenia, we have a chance."

A tough start
Ukraine, meanwhile, will look to improve on the 2-2 draw in Yerevan when they play Northern Ireland in Belfast. However, away hopes are dented by the injuries to Serhiy Serebrennikov and Hennady Moroz, although coach Leonid Buryak has decided against calling up reinforcements. Not that his opposite number, Sammy McIlroy, expects an easier time of things than in Saturday's 3-0 defeat by Spain. "I don't think we could have had a tougher start," he said. "Ukraine have seven players from [FC] Dynamo Kyiv and they are in the Champions League. But we have to stay positive."

Last updated: 17/10/02 9.26CET

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