Greek National team coach Michael Skibbe was a relieved man early this week after learning that Greece had avoided Italy in the World Cup play-off draw last Tuesday evening in Zurich.
Instead of the Azzurri, Greece must now get past Croatia over two legs in November, in order to qualify for their third consecutive World Cup finals via the play-offs.
“We are happy with the draw,” coach Skibbe declared following the draw, having previously commented he’d be happy to draw any one of Denmark, Switzerland, or Croatia rather than face the prospect of playing the Italians.
“We are very happy to reach this stage and now we are looking forward to facing Croatia,” he added.
“They are a very good team, and a very tough side who play great football.
“Having said that we are very good defensively, and I have a lot of confidence in my players, so let’s see what happens out on the pitch. I think it is a slight advantage to have the first leg away from home. As I said we can play well defensively away but we still have to make sure we get a positive result at home to get through.”
Nevertheless, Greece faces a formidable opponent in Croatia who are ranked significantly higher than Greece in the FIFA World Rankings; currently sitting in 18th place, well ahead of the Greeks who are ranked 47th.
On paper, Croatia will be favoured to progress to Russia ahead of Greece, as their team is blessed with an array of world class talent who have big game experience, including midfielders Luka Modric (Real Madrid) and Ivan Rakitic (Barcelona), forwards Ivan Perisic (Inter Milan) and Mario Mandzukic (Juventus), as well as defenders Sime Vrsaljko and Dejan Lovren.
Perhaps one factor working in Greece’s favour is that Croatia’s coach Zlatko Dalic has only recently been appointed coach of the team, having coached the team just once in their final away win against Ukraine, which enabled them to clinch second spot in the group behind Iceland.
Still, Greece’s coach Skibbe will have his own concerns in preparing the team with news that injuries to key defenders Manolas (Roma) and Donis (Stuttgart) have put them in serious doubt for the play-offs against Croatia beginning in Zagreb (from 9-11 November) and the return leg at Karaiskaki (Piraeus) from 12 -14 November.
In the other European play-offs, Italy faces Sweden, Denmark play the Republic of Ireland and Switzerland play Northern Ireland.