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Santos hoping for birthday treat

In terms of context and sub-plot, Greece's upcoming World Cup qualifiers against Bosnia and Herzegovina and then Slovakia have plenty to offer. Greece manager Fernando Santos has just celebrated his 58th birthday and it is just over six years to the day that Otto Rehhagel's men thumped Bosnia and Herzegovina 4-0 in Zenica on their way to qualifying for Euro 2008.

Santos also has a mounting injury list to key players, while one of his most trusted midfielders - Kostas Katsouranis - was recently sacked by Panathinaikos after reportedly falling out with the club's manager and president. Football in Greece, meanwhile, continues to suffer against the backdrop of recession.

Yet it is a mark of the progress made by the national team over the past two decades that, despite these various distractions and potential excuses, there appears to be an overriding sense of calm ahead of two particularly difficult fixtures. Whilst the inevitable reference to the "evil eye" was made in one piece listing the players unavailable to Santos, he showed at Euro 2012 that adaptability is one of his greatest assets as a coach.

It was in Poland and Ukraine, of course, that he had to contend with unfortunate suspensions to key players - Sokratis Papastathopoulos and talisman Giorgos Karagounis - as well as a major injury to centre-back Avraam Papadopoulos. Successfully being able to reorganise and entire back-line - including the goalkeeper - in the midst of a major international tournament is no mean feat, with the Portuguese tactician guiding his squad to a very respectable quarter-final place.

He is now without one of the gems unearthed at that very tournament, Kyriakos Papadoulos, with the Schalke man ruled out with illness. His dynamic, forceful style of defending is impossible to replace and further injuries to defenders Loukas Vyntra, Jose Holebas and Georgios Tzavellas have complicated matters considerably and, as a result, PAOK starlet Kostas Stafylidis is on stand-by.

The situation surrounding Kostas Katsouranis is another that Santos will have to overcome, given the veteran midfielder has been without a club recently but will still be certain to start both games. In fact, it might just be that the now former Panathinaikos player will need to act as an emergency stopper given Papadopoulos' absence, a role that he performed admirably in at Euro 2012.

If he is moved out of midfield and into defence, it will free space up for the return of captain Giorgos Karagounis, who will become the most capped Greek player of all time when he takes to the pitch against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Friday. It will mark 121 appearances for the senior national team, taking him beyond fellow Euro 2004-winner, and fellow captain, Theodoros Zagorakis.

In stark contrast to the slightly more youthful Katsouranis, Karagounis - who incidentally also left Panathinaikos in the summer - recently earned himself a contract with English Premier League side Fulham. Only appearing off the bench for the London club so far, he should return to the international scene reinvigorated and potentially ready to recapture the form that saw him inspire his countrymen during the European Championship.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, however, are a far more accomplished side than the one that meekly surrendered to the Greeks six years ago. Boasting the talents of a potential match-winner in Edin Dzeko, they will take heart from the fact that they have netted eight times in two qualifying matches and are coming up against a team that has previously made hard work of crunch qualifiers at home (the 4-1 defeat at the hands of Turkey springs to mind in particular). Slovakia too are a solid outfit who will be confident of their own chances in Bratislava four days later.

Undoubtedly this is a Greek team that is potentially susceptible given the ailments currently suffered by its defensive personnel and the fact that Santos is being forced to blood three relatively inexperienced goalkeepers, with usual first-choice Michalis Sifakis only recently sorting out his club future with Belgian club Charleroi (the departure of a foreign player on their roster has allowed for the former Aris man to officially sign for them).

Santos has usually enjoyed success on the eve of his birthday celebrations, at both international and club level. Indeed, he brought up his 57th birthday with a 2-1 win away against Georgia to secure Greece's qualification for Euro 2012 and was subsequently presented with a cake on the flight back to Greece.

However, talk of good and bad omens, milestones and controversies will have little impact on a manager who has forged a reputation for bringing about success through unashamed pragmatism. His ability to make the most out of limited resources was the reason he was so successful with Greek clubs and it is beginning to characterise his reign as national team manager.

Certainly that is something he shares in common with his predecessor Otto Rehhagel, though the German was not always one for substantial tactical or personnel changes. Santos is no maverick, but he has proven himself more willing to immediately correct his own mistakes and rely on a variety of different players, depending on the task at hand. Just as at Euro 2012, this will be a stern test of the Greek national team as a squad rather than as 11 individual stars - if there is one good omen that could be considered ahead of two crunch qualifiers, it is that it is the collective upon which this country's greatest football success was built.


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