NATAL, Brazil (AP) — Rock-solid defenders who constantly chase, tackle and bully their opponents have been the key to Greece tactics ever since they became European champions in 2004.
A decade ago, that team conceded a miserly four goals at Euro 2004 and its successor only conceded four in qualifying to secure its place at the 2014 World Cup as Greece stayed true to its reputation for hard work and ruthless discipline at the back.
That all changed when the squad arrived in Brazil.
The team’s much-vaunted defense was torn apart in a 3-0 defeat by Colombia, whose display of speed and style sometimes left the Greeks standing around like statues.
Greece now faces Japan in Natal on Thursday in a game that could very well put either team out of contention. Japan lost to Ivory Coast 2-1 in its opener, meaning neither team can really afford another defeat if they hope to advance out of Group C.
Japan advanced to the round of 16 four years ago but lost to Paraguay on penalties. Greece has bowed out in the group stage in its previous two World Cups.
For Greece, the need to rebuild its solid back line will be all the more important at a World Cup that is so far seeing crowd-pleasing flair in attack and plenty of goals: 44 in the first 14 games.
Colombia scored in the fifth minute, forcing Greece out of its comfort zone right from the start and attacking with speed on the flanks. Greek frustration was reflected in two of its players drawing yellow cards in the second half.
“That wasn’t what people expected,” Greece forward Andreas Samaris said. “I know what everyone expected of Greece though: that we would have 11 men behind the ball, defend, defend, defend and give everything to keep a clean sheet.
“We went out to win against Colombia, and that philosophy will not change. We just hope it brings a better result for us because Japan is now a must, must-win game for us.”
Like Colombia, Japan is likely to attack at speed through the Europe-based trio of Shinji Kagawa, Yuto Nagatomo and Keisuke Honda. Against Ivory Coast, Japan had the better of the first half but ultimately struggled as the game got more physical in the second half.
The arrival of the Ivorians’ star striker Didier Drogba as a second-half substitute also raised his team’s performance and there was only a muted response from the Japanese.
AC Milan midfielder Honda said that the team was determined to bounce back against Greece.
“Nobody feels good about losing and obviously it was a shock,” Honda, who opened the scoring with a powerful first-half strike, was quoted as saying. “But it’s not a shock that we lost, the thing that shocks me is we lost because we could not play to our strengths.
“We gave our opponents’ front line too much respect. Mentally we were weak but that is not a problem that can’t be fixed. A little bit more spirit can turn things around … of course we still have an opportunity to get through the group phase.”