All About The Journey: How Greece Qualified For The European Playoffs
The Greek National Team hit rock bottom during the EURO 2016 qualifiers, losing to the Faroe Islands twice en route to finishing last in their group. A response was needed from the players and coaches in order to restore pride. And in clinching second place in Group H in the European Qualifiers for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia the team did just that.
AGONAsport takes you back through a qualifying campaign that saw Greece finish 2nd and claim a spot in the upcoming Playoffs, but more so one that showed that the Ethniki had become a team once again.
6-Sep-16: Gibraltar-Greece 1-4
At the Estadio Algarve in Portugal, Greece began their quest for a 4th World Cup finals appearance against lowly Gibraltar. Kostas Mitroglou opened the scoring in the 10th minute as Greece were cruising early. A shock equalizer however just before the half-hour had supporters in panic mode, thoughts of the defeats to the Faroes and Luxembourg still fresh in the minds of fans. A flurry of goals at the end of the first half however sealed a 4-1 win with an own goal and strikes from Kostas Fortounis and Vasilis Torosidis.
7-Oct-16: Greece-Cyprus 2-0
The first real test of the qualifying cycle came in Greece’s second match against Cyprus. The Cypriots came out impressively and caused Greece problems for much of the match. However, the Ethniki put forth a very steady performance especially in defense while showing a clinical side offensively. Mitroglou and Petros Mantalos scored first-half goals that sent Greece on their way as they eased past their neighbors with a 2-0 victory.
10-Oct-16: Estonia-Greece 0-2
This match was similar to the Cyprus one in that Greece were not spectacular, but the team were beginning to show signs of getting their mojo back. An early goal from Torosidis in the 2nd minute set the tone. Estonia are traditionally a much better side at home and proved as much with a good performance. Greece were once again steady though, especially at the back, where they survived some dangerous moments, but always seemed to be in control. The points were sealed on the hour when Kostas Stafylidis curled in a fine free-kick from just outside the box. 2-0 to Greece and 3-for-3 to get the campaign started.
12-Nov-16: Greece-Bosnia 1-1
In a group that was always likely to be won by heavy favorites Belgium, the battle for 2nd place was clearly defined early on between Greece and Bosnia. And Greece welcomed the Bosnians to the Karaiskakis Stadium for a fiery tie in round 4 of the qualifiers. This was a hard-fought and ill-tempered clash from the opening whistle. Greece created chances in the opening stages, but it was Bosnia who took the lead with Miralem Pjanic’s free-kick in the 32nd minute.
The second half saw Greece battle mightily for an equalizer. Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Edin Dzeko were both sent off 12 minutes from time after the two came together following Dzeko inexplicably depantsing Sokratis Papastathopoulos. Bosnia looked as though they would hold on for a massive win. However, five minutes into injury-time, Giorgos Tzavellas latched onto a loose ball well outside the area and produced a stunning thunderbolt that saw Greece equalize with the last kick of the game. The goal sparked epic celebrations from the Greek players. As Giannis Maniatis ran to celebrate with a player he had feuded with in the past, it was a symbolic scene suggesting that this broken team had finally begun to come together again.
One more time...
25-Mar-17: Belgium-Greece 1-1
After picking up a huge result against Bosnia with Tzavellas’ last-second strike, it was the turn of the Ethniki to feel the pain of a late equalizer away to Belgium. Romelu Lukaku’s 89th minute goal claimed a point for the home side to keep Belgium undefeated and atop the group. Up until then Greece had been successful in a true backs-to-the-wall performance reminiscent of successful Greek teams in recent history. Greece held firm in a first half that saw Belgium have plenty of the ball, but not able to carve out many clear-cut chances.
Just after the break, Mitroglou was played through and scored a delightful goal as the visitors took a shock 1-0 lead. Belgium were growing increasingly frustrated, however were given a real lifeline as Greece were reduced to 10-men due to Panagiotis Tachtsidis’ second yellow card. As the match entered the latter stages, Belgium poured on tremendous pressure, however the Greek backline and goalkeeper Stefanos Kapino in particular were superb. Lukaku’s breakthrough ended up giving Belgium the point, but overall Greece could be content with their strong defensive display.
9-June-17: Bosnia-Greece 0-0
Greece then had to go into the lion’s den as they travelled to Zenica to take on Bosnia. This was a cagey affair in the red-hot atmosphere of the Bilino Polje Stadium. Bosnia had some good chances and more of the possession, but overall this was a very evenly-played match. In fact, it was Greece who late on missed a golden opportunity to take the three points, but Mantalos skied his shot over when clean through on goal.
Ultimately, Greece got what they wanted in this match as it finished 0-0 and they kept their one-point lead over Bosnia intact. There were chaotic scenes after the match as Bosnia’s assistant coach attacked Giannis Gianniotas, punching him and causing him to lose a tooth. Bosnia received a stadium ban as punishment for the attack on the Greek player.
31-Aug-17: Greece-Estonia 0-0
The first major disappointment with regard to Greece’s qualifying campaign came in late August. A routine home win was expected over Estonia, however Greece managed to produce their most uninspiring performance of the qualifiers. A disjointed display ended up seeing the team drop two vital points as Estonia’s fine organization ensured a 0-0 draw. Manager Michael Skibbe came under serious fire for what critics deemed to be poor team selection and tactics.
Greece did have some good fortune however as on the same Matchday, Bosnia could not take advantage of their slip-up as they lost away to Cyprus 3-2, after having gone ahead with a 2-0 lead in the second half. Greece’s Cypriot brothers had given the team a gift, taking a little bit of the sting out of the draw with the Estonians.
3-Sep-17: Greece-Belgium 1-2
Three days later, Greece welcomed the mighty Belgians to the Karaiskakis Stadium. The first half ended with Greece on top and unlucky not to have the lead. Tasos Donis, Stafylidis, and Fortounis all went close for the home team with Thibaut Courtois pulling off a couple of fantastic stops in the Belgium goal.
With 20 minutes remaining, Belgium scored the opener against the run of play. Jan Vertonghen finding space outside the penalty box to fire home from 20 yards. Greece’s response was instant and Carlos Zeca scored his first goal in a Greek jersey by superbly converting a cross. It was looking like game on, however Belgium then hit back again as the game sprung to life in a frenetic period. Lukaku this time breaking Greek hearts with a glancing header that gave his team the 2-1 lead. That is how it would end. Greece attempting to fight back for 10 minutes or so, but fatigue got the best of the team and Belgium held on for the win and a berth at the World Cup.
7-Oct-17: Cyprus-Greece 1-2
The loss to Belgium had dropped Greece to 3rd in the group as Bosnia took matters into their hands. This meant that Greece were now pulling for a Belgian win in Bosnia as the penultimate round of the campaign approached.
Greek prayers were answered as before Greece played Cyprus away, Belgium, playing earlier at Bosnia, won a thrilling match 4-3. This put the ball back in Greece’s court as far as 2nd place went. Cyprus however sent out a severe warning that this match wasn’t a friendly just 17 minutes in when Pieros Sotiriou picked up his own rebound to give Cyprus the lead.
Greece stayed calm however, recovering and turning the match on its head within 10 minutes. Mitroglou made it 1-1 with a breathtaking piece of skill to turn away from his marker and apply a composed finish in the 24th minute. Two minutes later Greece had completed the comeback as Alexandros Tziolis headed home from close range.
Greece saw out the match fairly comfortably as Skibbe’s side were the ones who looked the likelier to score. 2nd place would be Greece’s now if they managed to defeat Gibraltar on the final Matchday. The only concern being that the team needed outside help with other results to ensure they would be one of the top 8 2nd-placed finishers to advance to the playoffs.
10-Oct-17: Greece-Gibraltar 4-0
The day after the defeat of Cyprus, Greece received the great news that Slovenia had held Scotland to a 2-2 draw. This was one of the results Greece needed in order to avoid being the worst 2nd-placed team in European qualifying.
All that was left was to defeat Gibraltar at home to solidify 2nd in the group and beat out Bosnia. And that was Greece did. The first half had the Ethniki start a bit slower, but eventually taking the lead through a Torosidis header after the half hour.
The fans were clamoring for more goals and they came in the second half. Mitroglou completed a two-minute brace in the 61st and 63rd minutes to bring the score to 3-0 and effectively end the match as a contest. The cherry on top was provided by Gianniotas who finished off a nice move to make it 4-0 in the 78th minute.
That completed play in Group H as Greece rebounded from the terrible qualification experience of EURO 2016 to clinch 2nd behind group winners Belgium. Bosnia had given chase for much of the campaign, but a resilient Ethniki held on. These 10 matches represented the first round of qualification for the Greeks.
The second round of Playoffs will be played on November 9-11 for the first leg and November 12-14 for the second leg.