A 1-1 draw for Greece against Ecuador in New York last week may have serious repercussions for the national team which now risks missing out on getting seeded for the 2014 World Cup qualifiers draw next month. Friendly matches also count toward the official FIFA ranking and Greece could lose its position among Europe’s top nine teams by the July 31 draw if France or Norway score friendly victories before then.
Alexandros Tziolis’s goal was not enough for the national team to win in front of as many as 20,000 Greeks at Citi Field in the Big Apple, the home of baseball franchise the New York Mets. The players of manager Fernando Santos appeared tired, three days after Greece’s victory over Malta for the Euro 2012 qualifiers, allowing Ecuador to enjoy more possession while trying to threaten in counterattacks. As a result they could not hold on to their first-half lead and had little to offer in attack after conceding the equalizer in the second. Santos fielded a much-changed team to the one that won 3-1 on June 4 in Piraeus. It had Stefanos Kotsolis in goal, Yiannis Maniatis on the left side of the defense and Loukas Vyntra on the right, with an unchanged central defender duo of Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Vangelis Moras. Pantelis Kafes and Tziolis were the defensive midfielders, Lazaros Christodoulopoulos and Panayiotis Kone were on the wings, and Giorgos Fotakis was behind Greece’s lone striker Costas Mitroglou.
The Greek fans may have been outnumbered by those of Ecuador at the 45,000-capacity ground, but they managed to make up for it in volume. Their loudest cheer came in the 16th minute when a Fotakis free kick flew toward Tziolis at the edge of the six-yard box. The Racing Santander midfielder rose unchallenged to head the ball in and make it 1-0. Greece had two or three more chances in the first half, as Ecuador enjoyed more possession but seemed toothless in attack. The best first-half chance for Ecuador, which is preparing for the Copa America that starts on July 1, came two minutes from half-time when a Michael Arroyo free kick was parried by Kotsolis. The South Americans started the second half much stronger and put more pressure on the Greece goal that soon translated into the equaliser. It was the 58th minute when Fricson Erazo headed in from just three meters away an Edison Mendez cross from the left, in what was probably the only instance that the otherwise excellent Greek defense was caught napping.
Being aware that Greece needed to win this exhibition game, Santos responded immediately by making four substitutions in three minutes, bringing on Sotiris Ninis, Giorgos Karagounis, Yiannis Fetfatzidis and Stefanos Athanasiadis. Yet all Greece got to create in this last half-hour was a Fetfatzidis free kick that swerved just wide of Ecuador’s right post in the 72nd, and a Ninis one-on-one with Ecuador keeper Alexander Dominguez that had the Greek shoot straight at him two minutes from time. Three days earlier in Pireaus, goals from Greece’s new generation, including Yiannis Fetfatzidis and Kyriakos Papadopoulos, helped the national team stay at the top of its Euro 2012 qualifying group with a 3-1 win over Malta. Greece remains one point ahead of Croatia, which beat Georgia 2-1 at home on June 3, and is the favorite to snatch the top spot that secures direct qualification to the finals in Poland and Ukraine next year.
The early goal that Greece scored allowed the national team to avoid the nerves it might have had and to produce a spectacular first 35 minutes that produced two goals and plenty of chances as the hapless visitors tried to weather the Greek storm. Yet after the 35th minute the Greek enthusiasm subsided, perhaps due to the two-goal lead, allowing the Maltese to threaten Greece keeper Dimi Konstantopoulos.
The team of coach Fernando Santos was lucky to avoid conceding an equaliser in the 60th minute and sealed all three points three minutes later, in what was a key point in the game. Greece took the lead after the eighth minute through a swift team move from the right with Giorgos Karagounis, Sotiris Ninis and a pinpoint cross by Vassilis Torosidis into the path of Fetfatzidis, who scored with ease from the penalty spot. The second goal came in the 26th minute as a Giorgos Karagounis free kick found debutant Papadopoulos in the box, and he slotted it home to celebrate with tears in his eyes. Each side had a goal correctly disallowed as offside in the first half, by Dimitris Salpigidis for Greece and Michael Mifsud for Malta. It was Mifsud, though, who pulled one back for the Maltese nine minutes into the second half as the Greek defense was caught in possession. Malta came close to scoring an equalizer at the stroke of the hour as Andre Schembri’s shot hit the woodwork.
Greece restored its two-goal advantage in the 63rd minute as a great cross from the right by Salpigidis was spilled by Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg into the path of Fetfatzidis, who made no mistake from close range. Another positive aspect to Saturday’s match was the unexpectedly high turnout that saw some 20,000 fans filling the Karaiskakis Stadium with a vibrant atmosphere. Greece has 14 points, Croatia and Israel 13, Georgia is on nine, Latvia has four while Malta is still without a point. Consequently Greece’s next match, in Israel on September 2, is crucial for its future in the group.