Title defence starts for holders Greece

Greece expects a tight defensive battle rather than a high-scoring football show against Sweden in the team's European Championship opener on Tuesday.

updated: June 15, 2008 17:58 IST
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Salzburg, Austria:

Titleholder Greece expects a tight defensive battle rather than a high-scoring football show against Sweden in the team's European Championship opener on Tuesday.

That's not surprising since the Greeks, who stunned Europe by winning the tournament four years ago, are up against an opponent with similar qualities: physically strong and with a sturdy defense.

"We know this will be a game of strong defense, counterattacks and set pieces," defender Giourkas Seitaridis said Monday. "It'll be a low-scoring game, hopefully in our favor."

The Swedes, appearing in their fifth consecutive major championship, are counting on star strikers Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson to ruffle the defending champions.

Ibrahimovic hasn't scored a goal for Sweden since 2005 but he has had a strong season for Inter Milan and is fit to play the entire match after recovering from a swollen knee, coach Lars Lagerback said.

"He seems to have been born with good genes," Lagerback said, noting the striker's quick recovery.

Both squads fielded all 23 players in their training sessions Monday in Salzburg.

Greek playmaker Giorgos Karagounis ended the session with an ice-pack strapped to his right knee, but said it was nothing serious.

"My knee's OK. The training was fine," he said.

Both teams have trained behind closed doors in the run-up to the Group D encounter, careful not to release too many hints about lineups or tactics.

Greece coach Otto Rehhagel is likely to see Sweden as the weakest opponent in the group, with Spain considered favorites to advance. Russia was the only team to beat Greece at Euro 2004.

Greece striker Georgios Samaras predicted "there won't be much football" in the opener against Sweden.

"This is the first game, and both sides will be going for the result," he said.

The Swedes, too, are preparing for a close match. Captain Fredrik Ljungberg said the Greeks are strong in the air and on set pieces.

"Greece is the reigning champion and of course we have respect for them as a team," Ljungberg said. "They surprised a lot of teams last time and they probably can do the same again. So we need to be careful."

Sweden fullback Mikael Nilsson, who plays for Greek club Panathinaikos, said Greece is well organized but suggested their discipline can falter.

"If you look at how we play in Panathinaikos my guess is that they are the same, with the same mentality," Nilsson said. "It can be a bit nonchalant at times and I'm sure it can be the same in the national team.

Four years ago, the Greeks stunned attacking teams like Portugal and France with their rock-solid defense and quick counterattacks. On Tuesday, Greece is up against a team with a similar structure.

Although the Swedes have developed their offense in recent years, they often fall back on their fundamentals in big games: physical strength, a tight defense and team spirit.

"Both teams will try to stay compact and be a bit careful," Ibrahimovic said. "Then we'll see who scores the first goal. That's what's going to decide everything. That's when the game will open up."

Lagerback will likely pair him up with Larsson, but could also opt for a bigger striker, like Johan Elmander.

Both Sweden and Greece put in lackluster performances in their final warm-up matches. Greece lost to Hungary 3-2 and drew with Armenia 0-0. Sweden beat Slovenia 1-0 but lost by the same score to Ukraine.