Euro 2024 Qualifier
Greece 2-1 Republic of Ireland
There would be no historic away victory for Stephen Kenny’s side, as the Republic of Ireland suffered a 2-1 defeat to Greece in their Euro 2024 qualifier in Athens.
And in truth, the travelling Ireland side never came close, as they were second best throughout this lively encounter at the OPAP Arena.
Tasos Bakasetas handed the hosts the lead from the penalty spot after 15 minutes, and while Nathan Collins pulled one back before half-time, Giorgos Masouras bagged the winner shortly after the break to secure all three points for Gus Poyet’s side. Ireland would end the game with ten men as Matt Doherty received his marching orders in the final minute of injury time.
Looking to secure their first points of this qualifying campaign, Stephen Kenny named an attacking line-up with Will Smallbone coming into the side, while Adam Idah was included to bring power and pace into the attack; Darragh Lenihan getting the nod over Dara O’Shea in defence.
And by the time kick-off eventually came around, at 9:45pm local time, the earlier thunder and lightning storms and accompanying torrential rain had long departed the scene; the pitch looking close to perfect in the brand new stadium, although the locals could only manage to half fill it, with a few thousand vocal Irish taking over a full corner in a sea of green.
Then a moment of silence before kick-off in honour of the victims from the recent boat tragedy off Greece, while players of both teams wore black armbands.
If Ireland had attacking intentions ahead of the game, it was the home side who burst out of the blocks in the opening exchanges
Kostas Tsimikas attacked on the left before clipping a clever ball to back post that required a vital John Egan intervention to prevent Bakasetas getting a clear header on goal. Then Gavin Bazunu had to go full stretch to the top corner from the resulting set piece as Konstantinos Mavropanos poked a hopeful effort goalwards.
Greece kept the foot on the gas with a string of corners as Ireland struggled, and Bakasetas again tried his luck, hitting one into the ground, forcing Bazunu to help it over the bar.
Nine minutes in and Ireland were still edgy, exemplified by the fact that Josh Cullen struggled to control a standard ball across the centre of the park, which almost led to another Greek chance, and the visiting side remained firmly camped in and around their own penalty box for a while longer yet.
Giorgos Masouras hit the turf soon after, looking for a penalty following a perfectly clipped ball from the back, but Bazunu read his intentions and came out taking ball first, then man, as the ref waved away the strong appeal from the home crowd.
A VAR check followed soon after, however, and there was an anxious moment on the pitch as it took a touch longer than expected to work out the offence and offender.
The referee was then called to the screen to view, and as it turned out, it was a hand ball from Callum O’Dowda protecting his face with his arm raised, preventing the ball from going into the box; Austria’s Harald Lechner only needed one look to make his decision and swiftly pointed to the spot.
Bazunu may have saved a spot-kick from Cristiano Ronaldo, however, there was no stopping Bakasetas’ thunderbolt straight down the middle with the keeper already gone to his right as the hosts took a deserved lead after a frantic opening 15 minutes.
Ireland looked for an immediate response, and it led to their best passage of play as Idah and O’Dowda worked the ball into the box, however, the cross was deflected back to the keeper.
Thankfully, for Kenny’s struggling side, the Greeks went into defensive mode having made the breakthrough, which allowed Ireland to get their foot on the ball for their first period of possession.
Ireland thought they were level in the 27th minute when Nathan Collins arrived at the back post to help home Evan Ferguson’s flicked header from Smallbone’s corner from the right, however, the flag was raised as soon as the ball flew into the back of the net.
VAR would again come in to settle the dispute and again there was an unusually long wait for the result, with the referee eventually making the TV sign to signal a goal for Ireland.
Another stoppage allowed the Ireland team to regroup at the touchline; the manager and Keith Andrews with a lot to say before the resumption.
With parity restored, Greece would naturally click back into attack mode and Dimitris Pelkas was soon bursting in from the left, however, he sliced his shot wide. Bakasetas, however, would hit the target a moment later, forcing another fine save from Bazunu who got down well to his right.
Another plea over the tanoy followed asking supporters to stop using laser beams, as the Irish players had been targeted throughout the opening 35 minutes of play.
Greece’s dominance made Ireland look extremely ordinary as half-time approached and they must have been kicking themselves for not going for the jugular after taking the lead earlier in the game.
Ireland needed something to happen and Ferguson took it upon himself to try to turn the tide as he spotted the keeper off his line. The attempt from the half-way line was ambitious but ultimately futile as it skidded well wide.
Matt Doherty was then called into action three minutes before half-time as he had to slide across to make a vital block from Pelkas’ low effort. Captain Bakasetas was again looking to shoot on sight a moment later, but another deflection took it away from the goal.
Ireland’s best route, in fact, only route to goal was via the set-piece, as Smallbone curled another hopeful ball into the box following a foul on Idah, however, this time the Greece defence held firm.
Five minutes would be added at the end of the eventful first half, which Ireland safely negotiated ahead of what was surely set to be a lively dressing room at the break.
Adam Idah was replaced at half-time as the lively Mikey Johnston was sent on to link up with Ferguson who naturally pushed on to lead the line.
It took the hosts less than four minutes to again assert their dominance in the tie as Giorgos Masouras curled a fine effort beyond Bazunu into the bottom corner of the net.
But it was all about the exquisite pass from Bakasetas whose deft touch sent the ball perfectly into the path of the goalscorer, who had skipped past O’Dowda to get into the box and take his chance.
James McClean and Jason Knight were soon sent into the fray as Ireland were already pushing the panic button in a game that they had yet to really enjoy any sense of domination.
Greece played their part to allow Ireland back into the game as their attacking intentions were put on hold, once again, and while Kenny’s side did enjoy a period of controlling the play, they could not threaten.
It took a chorus of booing from the home side to urge Greece to get back in the game, yet as it approached the 70-minute mark, they appeared content with their slender lead, perhaps hoping to hit Ireland on the counterattack.
It was going to take something special for Ireland to get back on terms for a second time, and it almost arrived in the 72nd minute as the advanced Nathan Collins caught the sweetest of half-volleys that took every ounce of brilliance by Odysseas Vlachodimos to get two strong arms behind the ball to make a vital save.
The home side should have wrapped it up in the 79th minute as that counter-attack duly arrived allowing substitute Giorgos Giakoumakis to set himself up for a shot inside the box with only Bazunu to beat – the ball was scooped over, handing Ireland a fighting chance of saving something heading into the final ten minutes.
Michael Obafemi was on by now as midfielder Jayson Molumby was sacrificed, but it was Greece who maintained their attacking play as substitute Taxiarchis Fountas’ goalbound shot was brilliantly blocked by a sliding Collins.
Four minutes were added as the clock passed the 90-minute mark and there would be one more chance for Ireland to snatch a point.
It would, of course, come from a set-piece as John Egan was picked out at the back post and his header back into the mix was not cleared, allowing Doherty to attempt to pick his spot from 12 yards out.
The Atletico Madrid man would hit the target, however, Vlachodimos was equal to the last act as he dived to his left to make the decisive save.
Tempers boiled over in the final moments of the game with Doherty accused of some wrongdoing, and was sent off, while Giorgos Tzavellas would get a yellow card.
The final whistle would arrive moments after the commotion as the half-full arena celebrated as if it was jam-packed.
Greece: Odysseas Vlachodimos; George Baldock, Kostas Tsimikas, Konstantinos Mavropanos, Pantelis Hatzidiakos; Dimitris Kourbelis, Tasos Bakasetas (capt) (Giorgos Tzavellas 90), Petros Mantalos (Manolis Siopis 90); Giorgos Masouras, Dimitris Pelkas (Taxiarchis Fountas 71), Vangelis Pavlidis (Giorgos Giakoumakis 71)
Republic of Ireland: Gavin Bazunu; John Egan, Nathan Collins, Darragh Lenihan (Troy Parrott 89); Matt Doherty, Callum O’Dowda (James McClean 53), Josh Cullen, Jayson Molumby (Michael Obafemi 81), Will Smallbone (Jason Knight 53); Evan Ferguson, Adam Idah (Mikey Johnston HT)
Referee: Harald Lechner (AUT)