Greece is 90 minutes away from reaching its third World Cup finals after beating Romania 3-1 at home for the qualifying play-offs on Friday ahead of the return leg in Bucharest four days later.
The best game in the campaign for the Blue-and-whites came when it mattered most, as qualification to the World Cup in Brazil will mean much more to this nation than just a trip to soccer’s fantasyland.
Greece was at times uncharacteristically impressive in attack, with clever one-twos, back-heel touches and improved crossing, while Romania was increasingly frustrated, with several of its players ending up in the Portuguese referee’s book. PAOK’s Costin Lazar got two yellow cards within a few minutes to leave the Romanians with 10 men in injury time and miss the game in Bucharest. However among those booked was Greece captain Costas Katsouranis, who will also miss Tuesday’s return leg.
Romania was unable to capitalize on the weak point of the Greek team, i.e. its slow defensive midfielders, as it insisted on crossing the ball into the box instead of trying some shots when they had some openings.
Greece opened the score unusually early in the game: A high ball by Dimitris Salpingidis after a poorly cleared free-kick caught the Romanian defense off guard, picking Costas Mitroglou (who may have been in an offside position) unmarked in the box and he produced a delicate chip that beat Romanian keeper Bogdan Lobont in the 14th minute.
Five minutes later Bogdan Stancu equalized with a nodding header from the far post after a free-kick from the left by Gabriel Torje that Greece goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis failed to clear.
It only took a minute and a half for Greece to regain the lead through Salpingidis, who broke free in the box and capitalized on a perfect cross by Vassilis Torosidis from the right to slot the ball past Lobont for 2-1.
After the seven-minute goal spree, Romania enjoyed more possession and tried several times in the rest of the first half to get another equalizer, but the Greek defense improved as the game went on, while the visitors remained unsteady at the back.
It was another set piece in the 66th minute that brought about Greece’s third goal. Giorgos Samaras took a free-kick from the left, Katsouranis headed the ball diagonally standing with his back to the goal, and Mitroglou bolted it into the Romanian net.
After 3-1, Greece piled on the pressure on the Lobont goal, with Katsouranis, Mitroglou and Samaras coming close to 4-1. Substitute Fanis Gekas did get to score in the last minute, but he was ruled offside.
Greece fans created a fabulous atmosphere at the Karaiskakis Stadium, without leaving a single seat empty on the night. They realized that Brazil beckons.