How Chelsea legend Gustavo Poyet is keeping Greece's dream of Euro 2024 alive
By Alessandro Schiavone at Stade de France, Paris
FRANCE 1-0 GREECE (Mbappé 55')
It’s too early to say whether Gustavo Poyet’s Greece can upset the established order by finishing ahead of Holland and behind France in their Euro 2024 qualifying group to end a 10-year wait for a major tournament.
For now the former Chelsea midfielder’s side are still second in Group B behind Les Bleus, despite slipping to a 1-0 defeat at the Stade France on Monday night.
However six points on board from three games and an avoided trashing on the turf of European football's grandest force are promising signs for a country that has never come close again to a starring role after winning Euro 2004 in Portugal.
Yet at the time those unexpected highs were followed by the humiliating nadir of missing out on the German World Cup as reigning European champions two years later. Germany is also where the Euros are staged next summer.
Yet despite the weight of history, the omens are good this time. And that’s thanks to the excellent job the former Chelsea midfielder has overseen with a very average group of players and several off-the-pitch conondrums.
On Monday night only a penalty separated the favourites and the underdogs with Greece refusing to go down without a fight until the retiring Mateu Lahoz called it a day after 110 minutes of regular time. Remarkably each and every player put his body on the line which had their fans dreaming of an unlikely feat.
In front of a sold out Stade de France in Saint-Denis, England's nemesis at Qatar 2022 enjoyed most (if not all) of the ball and territory but Greece blocked and nullified everything that came their way. Randal Kolo Muani hardly made a case for why he should be given the keys of France’s attack permanently ahead of Giroud. But part of his difficulties on the ball were also down to the great job Greece did at the back. In the end Mbappé's penalty dodged what would have been perceived as an embarrassment by fans, pundits and the critical media alike in France.
But the scoreline had got more to do with Greece’s steely resistance and the meticulous way Poyet had prepared for such a tricky assessment rather than France's own famous inability to open up sides that park the bus.
The only survival chances Greece had were to sit deep, absorb the pressure and hope for a rare chance to hurt on the break. And it almost paid off.
Reminiscent of the legendary class of 2004, the Greeks played as if their lives depended on the outcome of that fixture. They fought their hearts out and kept things extremely tight as keeper Vlachodimos only had one save to make from Jules Kounde’s low effort on the stroke of half-time. The fact that they were still in the game until the last of the 14 minutes of stoppage-time is a clear indication that the man who scored for fun during his four years as a player at Stamford Bridge has them back on the right track. And most importantly, he’s restored the country’s hope and faith after turbulent years.
If only Poyet could rely on a striker like Vryzas, Charisteas, Machlas or Mitroglou leading his weak attacking line, things may have looked differently against the jaded hosts.
In an exclusive interview with L’Equipe in the build-up to the game, Poyet complained that the country’s Football Federation doesn’t have an own training complex, adding that they lack players in the top European teams and leagues.
And it showed each time they had the ball. Arsenal flop Mavropanos put in the kind of performance his iconic ancestor Traianos Dellas would have been proud of before he undid his XXL work on the night by giving away a cheap penalty for a reckless high boot challenge on Griezmann. Things then went from bad to worse after he was sent off for bringong down Kolo Muani who was speeding through on goal late on. There's a reason why Arsenal let him go for as little as £4.5m after all.
As a player during 1997 and 2001, Poyet left an indelible at Stamford Bridge, scoring 45 goals in 143 appearance as an attacking midfielder before he handed the baton over to Frank Lampard who did even better.
Yet as the head coach of Greece he can’t carve the team in his image. Bus instead he's forced to play the hand he’s dealt and make the most of what he has, squeezing every drop out of this group of players. Apart from a few exceptions they all earn their daily bread in the domestic Greece Super League, not exactly the Premier League or Serie A.
A side that has in Vlachodimos and Tsimikas its main talismen. Yet the former is a goalkeeper, the latter a benchwarmer at Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
All these on and off the pitch imperfections haven't discouraged Poyet though. And after promotion to League B in the Nations League, his next step is to see the job home and get Greece on the plane for Germany 2024, with the double header against Holland after the summer proving decisive.
Chelsea supporters of a certain age will remember his winning goal in the 1998 UEFA Supercup which downed the great Real Madrid, fresh from a triumph over Juventus in the Champions League final that year.
And if in the western part of London he’s a true hero, the hard taskmaster from Montevideo is the only man the Greek public want in the dugout after years of failed experiments and frustrations.
It won't be easy to see Greece in Germany but should he succeed where Otto Rehhagel failed in 2006, just like the great man he'll be remembered forever.