BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Greece only needs to stave off a big comeback by Romania in the second leg of their World Cup qualifying playoff on Nov. 19 to make it to Brazil.
The Romanians lost the first leg 3-1 in Piraeus on Nov. 15, let down by their ragged defense. In-form striker Kostas Mitroglou scored twice and the Greeks missed a string of second-half chances to add more goals.
The hosts, however, will have 55,000 supporters on their side at Bucharest National Arena and the highly anticipated return of their star player.
Here are five things to know about the match:
Wearing a protective clear-plastic mask in training, Romania captain Vlad Chiriches is back with the national side for the playoff decider.
The 23-year-old Tottenham player took part in regular training Nov. 18, and coach Victor Piturca said he was available to play. The central defender fractured his nose in a Premier League match on Nov. 10 but traveled to Greece to watch his team’s defeat.
Piturca said Chiriches’ return had buoyed teammates. “It’s going to very tough but a good result would bring (the country) such joy. We lost by two goals, so if we score two tomorrow night we can make it through. ”
Greece players and coach Fernando Santos went out of their way to play down their lead from the first leg, wary of overconfidence.
“There are no odds in this game. This is second part of the first match and we still have that second part to play. That’s the way we see it,” he said. “We know they have the quality to overturn the result, we’ll have to stop them.”
Greece’s main difficulty is the absence of suspended Vice-Captain Costas Katsouranis, who traveled with teammates and appeared more confident that other players.
“We are going to Romania to score and make things easier for ourselves,” said Katsouranis, a veteran of the winning 2004 European Championship squad. “We were much better in the first game and should have won by a wider margin.”
NOT TOO CAUTIOUS
Greece’s unyielding defense is, by now, well known to its opponents after a string of 1-0 wins led them to the stunning European title in 2004. Santos’ side only conceded four times in qualification, and the Portuguese coach is counting on his defenders again — but cautions they can only do so much.
A goal for Greece would almost guarantee them a ticket to Brazil. “We are aware of our advantage and we will fight to keep it. But we will also fight for our share of possession and will have a goal-scoring posture,” Santos said.
“Because if we’re coming to Romania and only have defense on our mind, things could very difficult for us.”
“MAXIM IS MY BOY”
Piturca came under inevitable criticism at home in the wake of last week’s’s defeat, with the chief complaint being that he failed to field pacey Stuttgart midfielder Alexandru Maxim.
Piturca said the 23-year-old Maxim would play on Nov. 19, and insisted he left him out of the first game for tactical reasons — not personal ones.
“Me, having an issue with Maxim? Maxim is my boy. I brought him into the national team,” the 57-year-old coach said. “The Greeks are tough opponents. And we’ll need fresh players to face them, Maxim is one of them.”
Romania needs goals — at least two of them — and will likely play with a more attack-minded formation than in the first leg.
Bogdan Stancu played as a lone striker in Greece but could be joined up front on Nov. 19 by Ciprian Marica, who scored both goals in a crucial 2-0 win over Estonia in the last qualifying round.
Whether that will be enough to break down the Greeks’ vaunted defense remains to be seen.
Associated Press writer Alison Mutler and APTN producer Nick Dumitrache in Bucharest contributed to this report.