ATHENS (AFP) - Five years and four months after their surprise Euro 2004 crowning, Greece are still searching for that magic touch which will lead them back to glory days.
A disastrous showing in the 2005 Confederation Cup, failure to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, a disappointing performance in Euro 2008 and failure to qualify outright in what was termed an easy group for the 2010 World Cup are all the team has to show in their post-Euro 2004 history.
But 71-year-old German coach Otto Rehhagel, the mastermind behind the Euro 2004 triumph, and a handful of players left over from that team have a chance to bring back lost respect if they get by Ukraine in the play-offs.
If they accomplish that, it will only be the second time that Greece has made it to the World Cup having done so for the first time in 1994 when they lost all their matches in the United States and even failed to score.
Ironically, Ukraine left Greece out in the cold for the previous World Cup as they beat the Greeks 1-0 on the road to the 2006 finals.
Greece host the first leg at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday but they are missing four injured starters.
Despite the long injury list, Rehhagel believes that both teams have the same chances of qualifying.
"A lot will rest on individual match-ups. Which team wins most of these will take a significant step towards winning the matches," Rehhagel said.
Missing both matches for the Greeks will be injured striker Giannis Amanatidis and defender Christos Patsatzoglou.
Expected to sit out only the first match but will be ready for the return in Ukraine next Wednesday will be defenders Giorgos Seitaridis and Vasilis Torosidis.
Ukraine, who were quarter-finalists in 2006, have a miserable record in play-offs, losing at this stage in qualifying for the 1998 and 2002 World Cups as well as the 2000 European championships.
However, the brightest star of Ukrainian football Andrey Shevchenko said he believed that his side were capable of breaking the dismal tradition.
"I believe we have a slight advantage starting the showdown with Greece away in Athens," Shevchenko told AFP. "We should play in a very well-disciplined style there even if the hosts are ahead.
"The Greeks are skilled players. They are well-disciplined and are very dangerous on the counter-attacks.
"But we have some positive experiences from playing Greece. We overcame them in the 2006 World Cup qualifying campaign. We won the group and a ticket to Germany."
Ukraine coach Alexei Mikhailichenko also said he was confident that his team could win the two-leg clash if his players performed at their top level.
"We are preparing for a tough battle," Mikhailichenko said.
"An away draw and a home win would be an ideal outcome for us. There are plenty of factors that could affect the result but I've told my men to play for a win in both matches.
"I'm counting on experienced fighters - Shevchenko, (Anatoly) Tymoshchuk, (Artem) Milevsky and (Oleg) Gusev."
Missing from the squad is Liverpool forward Andrei Voronin who asked not to be included.
|Coach: O. Rehhagel|
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