Resetting of expectations gives Greece a chance to qualify for Russia 2018
If your predecessors overachieve, you are bound to be in trouble. Greece will never regret winning Euro 2004, of course, but the generations that came after the triumph are a bit unlucky.
Their efforts had always been compared -- both domestically and globally -- to the incredible feat of becoming European champions, thus failure was unavoidable, despite the fact that Greece managed to remain relatively stable and keep the same style.
Their brand is so-called boring defensive football, even before all their wins at the knockout stage in 2004 were achieved by a 1-0 scoreline against France, Czech Republic and Portugal. Otto Rehhagel, who proved to be very flexible tactically during his era at Werder Bremen, chose that approach upon arriving in Athens and refused to change it. The German was later criticised for being too rigid and unwilling to refresh an aging squad but truth was probably on his side, as Greece qualified for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup.
Fernando Santos was named as Rehhagel's heir, mostly because he was expected to build on the same foundations. That's exactly what he did. The maestro didn't bring his Portuguese touch to Greece, but rather turned Portugal into a modern version on the Greeks, leading his own nation to the Euro 2016 title with five draws and a 1-0 extra-time win over France in the final. Back in his days on the Greece bench, Santos was hugely successful, with the team reaching the quarterfinals at Euro 2012 and the last 16 at the 2014 World Cup.
In fact, the only significant fiasco occurred when Claudio Ranieri, of all people, attempted to change the mentality after being appointed as Santos' successor after the 2014 World Cup. The Italian implemented a much more adventurous style and tried to please everyone around him. He gambled on the incredible 4-2-4 formation in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Northern Ireland, and was forced to leave after just four matches when Greece astonishingly lost at home to Faroe Islands.
The team proceeded to succumb to the Faroes once again later in the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and finished at the bottom of a fairly easy group that they were initially expected to win. That was humiliating in the extreme, the absolute low-point of Greek football.
Ironically, though, it has proved to be positive in the long run. By becoming the sad joke of European football, Greece set another reference point for future results. From now on, everything can be compared to the disastrous year, and victories are suddenly met with optimism.
In addition, the debacle proved beyond doubt that Greece must stick to their traditional strengths in order to have a chance. Experiments are unwise, and that is why Michael Skibbe was named as coach two years ago. A German, he immediately brought the memories of Rehhagel back, and that was exactly what the country needed for the wounds to heel quickly.
"Skibbe was expected to give us the stability that was sorely missed during the Euro 2016 qualifiers. He brought the belief and the cohesion of the past back. The defensive organisation became much better, and that was important against top rivals like Belgium and Bosina," Sport24.gr senior editor Themis Kessaris told ESPN FC.
Sport24.gr writer Costas Bratsos added: "Skibbe had to reunite the disjointed team and bring back the Greek mentality -- the toughness and the spirit that catapulted us into the elite of European football. His financial demands were reasonable, and he didn't insist on bringing a lot of assistants with him. He was the obvious choice tactically, financially and even politically, because he is a German."
Greece proved to be solid in those World Cup qualifying fixtures. They drew 1-1 with Bosnia, were close to beating Belgium in Brussels in March before conceding a late equaliser, and drew 0-0 with Bosnia again in June. Their only defeat of the campaign, 2-1 to Belgium in Piraeus, was marginal and rather unlucky. The team was back to basics, and fans loved it.
Greece never really excited, and their attacking potential is still problematic -- to put it mildly. Their chances of qualifying for the tournament took a huge blow after the goalless draw with Estonia at home in August. They were helped mightily by the fact that Bosnia fell apart on the very same night, wasting a 2-0 lead in Cyprus and losing 3-2. Bosnia then proceeded to lose 4-3 to Belgium in dramatic fashion, enabling Skibbe's team to finish second and qualify for the playoffs.
They used to love such challenges in the past. Greece were considered underdogs against Ukraine in the 2010 World Cup qualifying playoffs, but drew 0-0 at home and won 1-0 in Donetsk thanks to a Dimitris Salpingidis goal. The striker was on target again, alongside Kostas Mitroglou, when Greece overcame Romania in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Now they are facing eastern Europe rivals for the third time in a row. Croatia are clear favourites, but they can't underestimate their opponents. Everyone remembers only too well that Greece finished above Croatia in Euro 2012 qualifiers and won 2-0 in Piraeus in a game marred by crowd violence.
The Greeks are not feeling confident, however.
"The crisis is behind us, and we are back in the playoffs once again, but expectations are different. Ahead of the games against Ukraine and Romania, the team made us feel that they can beat anyone. The feeling is different now. I'd like to be wrong, but it seems that surviving the playoffs is beyond us," Kessaris says.
The first leg in Zagreb is going to be especially difficult on Thursday because star Roma centre-back Kostas Manolas is suspended, while Borussia Dortmund stalwart Sokratis Papastathopoulos' fitness is in significant doubt -- he was injured against Bayern Munich on Saturday. And yet, the Greeks proved in the past that they are able to surprise thanks to their remarkable commitment, and that should be easier to do so when expectations are low.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin