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After arriving in Portugal without a win at a major championship, Greece are one game away from the UEFA EURO 2004™ showpiece, although they must first overcome the competition's form team, the Czech Republic, on Thursday night.
The Czechs come to the Estádio do Dragão in Porto with the supreme confidence that four straight wins brings. Squad morale is also high thanks to coach Karel Brückner's man-management skills. All but one player - third-choice goalkeeper Antonín Kinský - has been given a run-out at the finals. However, Greece will also feel positive, especially as they return to the stadium where they silenced hosts Portugal on the opening day.
The Greeks have striker Zisis Vryzas available again after suspension and he may to return to the starting lineup for his 50th cap at the expense of Themistoklis Nikolaidis. A more certain starter is fit-again Stylianos Giannakopoulos, who could come in on the right side of midfield with Konstantinos Katsouranis or possibly Angelos Basinas dropping to the bench.
It is highly unlikely that Otto Rehhagel, the German coach whose success has prompted calls for him to be made an honorary Greek, will change anything in defence. Full-backs Giourkas Seitaridis and Panagiotis Fyssas have particularly caught the eye, along with 28-year-old central defender Traianos Dellas.
Rehhagel's men have more than made their mark in defence. Indeed, they kept a clean sheet in their only previous meeting with the Czech Republic, a goalless home draw in an April 2002 friendly. They are also one of only three teams to have kept the Czechs from scoring in the 28 internationals since Brückner took charge. Prior to that fixture the Greeks had lost all five matches against the former Czechoslovakia.
The Czechs also have happy memories of the Dragão, having beaten Denmark there 3-0 last Sunday. That game took its toll on the Czech defence, however, with Martin Jiránek and René Bolf picking up injuries. "Bolf is ready to play but there is still a question mark over Jiránek," Brückner revealed on Wednesday. Full-back Zdenek Grygera is the man most likely to come in should Jiránek's thigh muscle strain keep him out.
There are no such problems in the forward positions with EURO 2004™ top scorer Milan Baroš aiming to add to his five goals, while Karel Poborský is in line for a landmark of his own. If the midfield player figures he will equal the UEFA European Championship appearance record of 14, held jointly by Lilian Thuram and Zinedine Zidane.
Several players on both sides will need to be on their best behaviour. For the Czech Republic, Marek Jankulovski, Tomáš Ujfaluši and, crucially, captain Pavel Nedved are all one yellow card away from missing a possible final through suspension. For Greece, Georgios Karagounis and Theodoros Zagorakis, who has still not scored in 93 internationals, must also avoid picking up a caution.
With those possible bans in mind, Brückner added: "I'm not very happy about the three cards and that will be part of our tactical preparations. I have spoken to the players about the situation, but I don't think there will be any surprises. Both my players and our opponents know each other very well and will be thoroughly prepared for their tasks."
Greece (possible): Nikopolidis; Seitaridis, Kapsis, Dellas, Fyssas; Giannakopoulous, Zagorakis, Basinas, Karagounis; Charisteas, Vryzas.
Czech Republic (probable): Cech; Grygera, Bolf, Ujfaluši, Jankulovski; Poborský, Rosický, Galásek, Nedved; Koller, Baroš.
Referee: Pierluigi Collina (ITA).
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