Greece produced another impressive display, beating Finland 2-1 on Monday in their concluding Euro 2020 qualifying match at the Olympic Stadium in Athens.
Teemu Pukki scored his 10th goal in eight qualifiers after 27 minutes to put Finland, who have already qualified for the finals, ahead against the run of play, only for Petros Mantalos to pounce a minute into the second half to equalise.
Kostas Galanopoulos then rammed the ball home from close range for his first international goal after substitute Efthymios Koulouris had been thwarted by Finnish goalkeeper Jesse Joronen.
John van ‘t Schip’s new-look Greece team were the better side for long spells against the Finns, who made history last Friday by qualifying for a major finals for the first time in the country’s history, and fully deserved their third win in a row - the first time the Greeks have achieved such a feat since 2016.
For Finland, they will shake off this disappointment and wait with bated breath for the Euro 2020 finals draw on November 30 in Bucharest, while for Greece it’s a case of what might have been. This exciting, youthful team must now look to the qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
The win will see Greece move up in the FIFA Rankings ahead of Finland, which could prove important ahead of the FIFA World Cup qualifying draw. Greece claimed third place in Group J of Euro 2020 qualifying with 14 points, just four points behind second-placed Finland.
Following back-to-back wins against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Armenia, Greece came into this match looking to rubber-stamp the marked progress they have made under their new Dutch coach.
Greece won their last two games, their first back-to-back victories since October 2017. They haven't managed three in a row since 2016.
They had the perfect chance to do so with Van ‘t Schip fielding the exact same starting line-up to the one against the Armenians last Friday. The Greeks, who cannot mathematically qualify for the European Championship, started brightly, once again displaying the same confidence and composure which has characterized their play since van ‘t Schip took the helm.
The hosts played some fluid, attacking football and enjoyed the lion’s share of possession, and it seemed like only a matter of time before they managed to pick the lock of the well-drilled Finland defence.
But a series of blocked shots and mishit efforts meant that after 26 minutes and 11 attempts on goal, only two shots were on target and the scoreline remained 0-0.
And then just one minute later, Finland broke the deadlock with their first attempt. It came via a hopeful long ball that bounced over defender Pantelis Hatzidiakos and into the path of Pukki.
There was still time for Greece captain Kostas Stafylidis to clear but despite getting to the ball first, he casually tried to flick the ball over Pukki. Instead the ball bounced off the 29-year-old Norwich striker’s chest and gave him a clear run on goal.
That was all the invitation Pukki needed and he steadied himself before finishing clinically past Vlachodimos with a low, side-footed shot.
Greece did not allow their heads to drop despite that setback, and kept plugging away and trying to play their way past the Finnish defence.
They almost had an equaliser on 39 minutes when Tasos Bakasetas got across his marker and glanced a downward header that looked to be sneaking inside the post before Finland goalkeeper Jesse Joronen pushes it wide.
A minute later, however, Finland broke down the right channel with Kauko, who worked himself a clear sight of goal. Under pressure from Dimitris Giannoulis, however, his low shot was saved by Vlachodimos.
Greece came out in determined mood after half-time, and they were level within a minute of the restart. A right-wing cross from PAOK winger Dimitris Limnios found its way to the feet of Bakasetas, who crossed low for Mantalos to slot home from close range.
The tempo of the game somewhat dropped as the second half wore on, and van ‘t Ship tried to inject a bit more attacking impetus by replacing striker Vangelis Pavlidis with Efthymios Koulouris after 65 minutes.
And his move paid off with 20 minutes left. After Giannoulis crossed for PAOK clubmate Limnios, the latter teed up Koulouris for what looked like a certain goal. The former PAOK and Atromitos striker’s shot was saved by Joronen, but the ball fell kindly for Galanopoulos, who blasted the ball into the net from a few yards out to make it 2-1.
Both sides had chances to score after that, but it was the Finns who looked more in danger of conceding than Greece. No further goals were added though, and the final whistle brought the curtain down on another solid performance and victory for the home side.
It’s certainly been an eventful qualifying campaign. The dramatic comeback in Bosnia, home setbacks against Armenia and Liechtenstein, the sacking of Angelos Anastasiadis, and the much-improved recent performances which have filled the Greek public and media observers alike with renewed optimism for the future.
Greece: 1 Vlachodimos (GK), 22 Giannoulis, 3 Stafylidis, 17 Hatzidiakos, 2 Bakakis, 21 Kourbelis, 15 Galanopoulos, 20 Mantalos, 14 Bakasetas, 18 Limnios, 16 Pavlidis
Finland: 1 Joronen (GK), 4 Toivio ©, 5 Väisänen, 6 Kamara, 8 Lod, 10 Pukki, 11 Schüller, 15 Väisänen, 17 Skrabb, 19 Kauko, 22 Raitala
FINAL GROUP J STANDINGS
Italy 30 points
Finland 18 points
Greece 14 points
Bosnia 13 points
Armenia 10 points
Liechtenstein 2 points
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*Image credit: Eurokinissi