Gallant Greece beaten but unbowed as Belgium qualify for World Cup
FIFA WORLD CUP QUALIFYING - GROUP H (MATCHDAY 8)
|Greece||1 - 2||Belgium|
Greece lost out narrowly 2-1 to Belgium in a tightly-contested Group H World Cup qualifier at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in Athens on Sunday, a result which secured the Belgians a place at the 2018 finals while jeopardizing the hosts’ hopes of qualifying in the process.
Goals from Gert Vertonghen and Romelu Lukaku proved enough to seal a vital win for Roberto Martinez’s team, who became the first team to book a place at the 2018 World Cup alongside hosts Russia.
For Greece, the result means that they surrender second place to Bosnia and Herzegovina, who ran out comfortable 4-0 winners against section strugglers Gibraltar and are one point ahead of third-placed Greece with 14 points.
That is a slender margin, however, and there are still two rounds of fixtures to play, so Greece still have time to turn things around and claim second spot which leads to a playoff spot in November.
And there were so many positives for Michael Skibbe’s much-improved Greece team, with Zeca’s goal among the many highlights of a determined display which so easily could have resulted in a draw or win for the Greeks.
After spending the opening exchanges trying to contain an enthusiastic Belgian team fresh from a 9-0 roasting of minnows Gibraltar four days ago, Greece finally came out of their shell with a quick counter attack in the 12th minute.
And it was the lightening quick Tasos Donis who had the packed crowd on their feet, the Stuttgart forward dispossessing Mousa Dembele before producing a lung-bursting surge through the heart of the Belgian midfield and defence, although his shot from a tight angle was parried away by Thibaut Courtois.
The hosts kept their foot on the gas and six minutes later they almost took the lead when Kostas Stafylidis cracked a superb left-footed shot from the edge of the penalty off Cortois’ left post.
Chelsea’s lanky keeper managed to get a faint hand to the ball on its way to the woodwork.
That period of pressure seemed to give Greece a huge confidence boost and Skibbe’s players looked a completely different proposition to the uninspired team which failed to score against Estonia in Thursday’s 0-0 draw.
Greece continued to threaten and finished the half strongly, chasing every ball and getting in the faces of their illustrious opponents, with Kostas Manolas, Sokratis Papastathopoulos and Giorgos Tzavellas putting in some crunching tackles.
The hosts began the second half as they finished the first, making all the running while holding the Belgians at bay when necessary.
All that hard work was undone on 70 minutes, however, when Vertonghen was given too much time and space on the edge of the penalty area.
The Tottenham defender edged forward with the home side sitting back and beat Greece keeper Orestis Karnezis with a vicious, low shot to put the Belgians in front.
Just three minutes later, however, Greece were level and deservedly so when a neat passing move ended with left-back Tzavellas picking out the run of Zeca into the box and the FC Copenhagen man side-footed confidently past a helpless Cortois.
Unfortunately, the palpable elation lasted a mere minute as a lapse in concentration allowed Belgium to level. Thomas Meunier broke free down the right for the visitors and sent over a precise cross for Lukaku to score his 10th goal of qualifying with a powerful downward header with Papastathopoulos out of position.
It was a huge task for Greece from then on, but they continued to battle manfully, although they had Karnezis to thank for a fine reflex save from Mertens in the last minute to prevent Belgium from going 3-1 up.
Greece must now turn their attention to getting a win against Cyprus away from home in the next round of matches on October 7, and hope that Belgian can do them a favor when they travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina on the same night.