For Greece, this could be the final dazzling step
in a remarkable journey. For Portugal, this could be the ultimate payback.
The European Championships, in the unlikeliest
of pairings, end Sunday at the Stadium of Light, with host Portugal looking to
make up for its opening loss to Greece and win its first major title.
The Greeks, who until this event had never won a
game at the Euros or World Cup, beat Portugal 2-1 three weeks ago in the biggest
opening-game upset in the tournament's 44-year history. Now the outcome doesn't
look so embarrassing.
The Greeks, coached by Otto Rehhagel of Germany
and 100-1 long shots at the outset, went on to tie Spain, defeat defending
champion France in the quarterfinals and beat the hottest team, the Czech
Republic, in the semis.
Portugal wants to wipe away memories of its
opening defeat and impose itself on a Greek team relying on strong defense and
``We're working on correcting what went wrong
last time,'' said Portugal midfielder Nuno Maniche, who scored on a 22-yard shot
in the 2-1 semifinal victory over the Netherlands. ``We'll need to be patient
and disciplined. They close down well, they're very organized.''
The Greeks insist they have become stronger as
the tournament progressed.
``The first match is over, it doesn't mean a
thing,'' said Greek defender Traianos Dellas, who scored seconds from the end of
the semifinal against the Czech Republic.
``A lot of things are changed in the middle and
we will have to face a completely different Portugal, stronger. But they will
also find Greece, with a great soul, even better than in the opening match.''
Portugal coach Luiz Felipe Scolari guided Brazil
to its fifth World Cup two years ago. The Brazilian can become the first coach
to win both the World Cup and European titles with different teams.
But he must find a way to unravel a Greek
defense that has proved unshakable. Dellas and Georgios ``Giourkas'' Seitaridis
have been the stars of a well-organized back four. Missing the final will be
Georgios Karagounis, who was booked in every game he played and will serve his
second suspension of the championship.
The Greeks must try to stifle Portugal's attack,
probably by putting two defenders on Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo whenever
they have the ball. Greece may crowd the midfield to make sure Deco and Maniche
don't get room and leave striker Angelos Charisteas alone in attack.
Figo was at his best when Portugal outplayed the
Dutch in the semifinal, and Portugal will need another big game from him. While
Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto represent the old guard, teenage winger
Ronaldo has scored twice and thrilled the home fans with his runs down the
Maniche, who has also had a standout tournament,
is one of six players from FC Porto, which won the Champions League a month ago.
Now the national team bids to follow that triumph with its first title.
``Winning on Sunday would be the crowning moment
of a fantastic season,'' hesaid. ``I'm really fired up to play and get a trophy
FIFA president Sepp Blatter lauded Euro 2004 for
excellent soccer before a growing global audience, saying it augurs well for the
2006 World Cup. ``Can you imagine what the World Cup in two years time will be
like when a 16-team competition without South America, Africa and Asia already
does this?'' Blatter told The Associated Press. ``It will be a real fiesta.''
... Costa will retire from international soccer after the final. The 31-year-old
midfielder declined to give a reason. ... German referee Markus Merk, who is
friends with Greece's coach, will work the final. ``Friendship means nothing,''
Scolari said. ``Everyone will be doing their job. If UEFA picked this referee
for thefinal it's because they trust him.''