Greece leapfrogged Croatia in Group F of the Euro 2012 qualifiers, after last nights tumultuous 2-0 win. The match began in unsettling circumstances with a section of the home support instigating a confrontation with the travelling fans. English referee Howard Web had to stop the match for 5-10 minutes as the violent scenes subsided. Though there was little between the teams throughout the cagey, error strewn tussle, it was Celtic’s Georgios Samaras who broke the deadlock – putting his country in pole position to qualify.
Back in Scotland, the development sparked a frenzy of debate among fans of Samaras’ club team Celtic – who a large proportion consider Samaras to be — an almost comical failure as a striker. The Greek has always struggled to win over the support; with his alleged “languid” playing style. Most damningly, and the biggest beating stick in his critics armoury, is his goals per game ratio – which is a fairly inarguable criticism. The stats read 141 appearances, (a whopping 55 of which were from the bench) with a return of 43 goals. An interesting note, is that of the 189 competitive games that have taken place since his arrival, he’s only managed to start in 86.
Regardless, given recent (barren-ish) goal-scoring form, Celtic fans are asking: How come Samaras has managed to score the decisive goal in a crucial, top-level competition?
Greece 2 – 0 Croatia
This is a Greek team just getting used to a brand new era. Legendary German manager Otto Rehhagel stepped aside after 9 years (including the famous 2004 Euro win) to allow Fernando Santos to take over. And while the manager has changed, it appears the general first-pick strategy has not – a defensive 4-3-3 built on a sturdy defence, striking blows on the counter and through set-pieces.
Slaven Bilic meanwhile opted for the fashionable 4-2-3-1 – with the intention of getting the best of Luka Modric (in his favoured, deeper role) and using a technically rich band of 3 to supply Rangers’ Nikica Jelavic. It was interesting to see Eduardo out wide on the right – once a glorious throwback to the classic “poacher” type-player, but with the wider game of football all but exterminating such greedy individuals, he finds himself exiled out on the right.
The game was notable for it’s scrappy nature with perhaps the poisonous atmosphere generated by the local support the source. Little was created in a technical sense, with Croatia in particular only managing 1 shot on-target and 1 off-target.
Since signing for Celtic from Manchester City back in 2008, Samaras has squeezed into one of three possible different roles. (Until very recently) Celtic have been almost exclusively 4-4-2 fanatics, although Tony Mowbray’s hollow side approached being classed as 4-2-4. The go-to ‘Plan B’ has generally been some form of 4-5-1. The three roles therefore in order of frequency, have been: One of two strikers, the ‘lone’ striker or on the left of a 4 man midfield.
Crucially, the one position/role that he favours – is on the left of a front 3, and this is a system that Celtic very rarely use (if ever). In the brief moments of attacking creativity enjoyed by Greece last night, Samaras’ looked best working off the second ball, generally won by Gekas who was acting as something of a focal point. “Target-man” might be the wrong word, (he’s only 5’10”) but Gekas certainly took up a lot of that responsibility.
Samaras’ pace (as Celtic fans are aware) is often a concern for the opposition. The nature of counter-attacks also lends itself in Samaras’ favour. Generally, there’s less time to think and more space to burst into. Picking up the ball in front of a packed “team bus” style defence — often found in Scotland — is perhaps the worst place possible for Samaras, as is wrestling for space and control in a box containing nineteen players.
From a manager’s point of view – it was a dreadful goal to concede. Not just because Samaras was left shortly after a corner in yards of space – but because the same situation had happened seconds before.
On the right is 3 images (apologies for quality) showing the first corner of the match, ending on 69 minutes and 45 seconds. In the first image, while Gekas is making his way towards the corner to take the set-piece, Corluka is tight on Samaras. Just prior to the ball being kicked, Corluka steps back a few yards (image 2). Finally, as the ball is headed clear for the second corner, Samaras has just sign-posted how easy it is to find room in the area – and it’s always worrying when a team allows a tall striker room in the area.
You can only imagine that Slaven Bilic was furious. If he wasn’t, and if you are Croatian – you should be worried.
If Bilic indeed tried to communicate this matter to his players, the message did not make it’s way across successfully.
Here is the second corner – still in the 69th minute
And just on the turn of 70 minutes, here is the strike which opened the scoring:
So how come Samaras scored? Sadly, it wasn’t down to a barnstorming performance – it was down to poor defending, and also arguably not being in Scotland. The most significant factor was clearly the time and space in the box afforded – time and space that he’d never be allowed to find in the SPL. But on a similar theme (if completely unrelated to the goal itself) he was played in his favoured position in a formation simply alien to Scottish football – that is on the left of a 4-3-3. And this is an angle that fits right in with the “critics” view: for all Samaras’ ability, perhap Scottish football doesn’t suit his style?