- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2008

SALZBURG, Austria | Greece discovered an effective but unpopular way to win the European Championship four years ago. Now feeling the pain of a 2-0 defeat in its first game as defending champions, the team will have to find something else.

The squad that went from upset to upset in Portugal at Euro 2004 to go home with a trophy no one expected - the Greeks were 80-1 shots - came to Austria with a more positive approach and hopes of showing the world it has more to offer than goals off set pieces.

After 67 minutes of play that did little to impress the neutrals in the 30,000-seat Wals-Siezenheim stadium, Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson showed them how the game should be played.

The lanky Ibrahimovic swapped passes with the veteran Larsson near the corner of the penalty area and drove the ball into the top far corner of the net. It was a goal of supreme quality, one worthy of the European Championship.

Although the second goal was scruffy, coming off a close-range scramble capped by Petter Hansson, Otto Rehhagel’s team now has a tough road if it is to hold on to its title.

After Spain’s 4-1 victory over Russia in Innsbruck, Greece is three points behind two of its big rivals in the group. Although it could beat Russia in its next game Saturday, it then faces the Spaniards on June 18 back in Salzburg, and that could be the day it says farewell to the title.

Rehhagel, the German coach who masterminded that Euro 2004 triumph, will have to find something different to unlock the Russian defense. Then Greece has to withstand the talented Spanish midfielders and strikers.

A repeat of this unimaginative, colorless play simply won’t do.

With seven players from the victorious 2004 squad in the starting lineup, it was an intriguing question whether Greece would play the same economy class soccer that won it the title in Portugal or whether Rehhagel would let the team maintain the impressive play that brought it to the tournament again.

When Angelos Charisteas, whose goal in the final in Lisbon won Greece the title, went on a weaving run past three Swedish defenders in the seventh minute, the signs were good. Sadly, his weak shot at goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson was a harbinger.

Although Charisteas went on a similar run later in the game and tested goalkeeper Andreas Isaksson with a powerful angled shot, Greece only came close when Hansson almost headed a cross into his own net.

Apart from that, Greece gave Isaksson little to do. Its tactic of playing pass after pass along the back line, presumably to try and lure the Swedes out of position, simply didn’t work. All it did was draw loud jeers from the Swedish fans and irritate the neutrals.

Whenever they tried to deliver a long ball to the front men, it usually sailed out of play or to a Swedish defender. The team didn’t use midfielder Angelos Basinas often enough, and striker Fanis Gekas, who scored five goals in the qualifying games, was replaced at halftime after producing virtually no threat.

It was like watching an Italian team holding on to a 1-0 lead, not a team hoping to begin its defense of the European Championship with a victory.

Greece has a well-organized back line of tall, powerful defenders who give the team a strong platform for Rehhagel to work on. Until the 67th minute, they stifled the dual threat of Ibrahimovic and Larsson.

But the coach needs to find a better way of getting the best out of Charisteas and Giorgios Samaras, the lively 23-year-old forward who tried in vain to get past the Swedish defenders on the few times he had the ball at his feet.

The Swedes are nowhere neat the best of the 16 teams at Euro 2008, but they knew what to expect.

“We knew they might play up to five defenders, and they would have man-markers,” Sweden coach Lars Lagerback said. “It’s tough to face them because they are physically strong. I’m not surprised they had one marker on Zlatan.”

It was all too predictable.

“Some of my players were unable to play at the level I expected them to,” Rehhagel said. “They tried hard, but it wasn’t enough.”

The wily German clearly believes his players have the ability to give more to this competition. He needs to find it fast.

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