Dimitris Salpingidis’ second half breakthrough was just enough for Greece on Tuesday night as Fernando Santos’ men completed a smash-and-grab 1-0 win over Slovakia as Qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup took center-stage in Bratislava.
Arriving in the Slovakian capital dead-locked in a three-way log-jam for first place in Group G, Greece managed to ensure that the race for the automatic qualification berth remains primarily a two-horse race for the time being.
An injury to Stelios Malezas in Friday’s 0-0 draw with Bosnia-Herzegovina opened the door for Dimitris Siovas to make his first start in the heart of the Greek defense — the Olympiacos defender pairing up with Greece regular Sokratis Papastathopoulos, team-mate Vassilis Torosidis and Nikos Spyropoulos to form the Greece back-line.
Certainly not the first-choice set of defenders for Greece, the lack of rhythm in the Greek back-four was certainly evident in the Slovakian capital.
Early misses from Kostas Katsouranis and Siovas were nearly made costly by Slovakia’s Marek Hamsik, who shot narrowly wide before being denied a sure goal by a clearance off the goal-line by Vassilis Torosidis. With Slovakia continuing to assert themselves, the hosts were unlucky not to go in front before the interval — wet conditions making life very difficult for the Greek back-line.
With the match poised at 0-0 through the opening frame, Slovakia continued its pressure after the restart. Hamsik continued to be the focus of the Slovakian attack, but excellent last-ditch defending managed to keep the Napoli man at bay.
Michal Breznanik threatened to notch a breakthrough with his shot from distance, but Orestis Karnezis one of his mnay saves on the night to deny the swerving effort.
Sensing his side needed a change, Santos introduced Kostas Mitroglou as a move lively option compared to a woeful Theofanis Gekas.
The change paid off shortly after as Greece managed a counter-attack with Mitroglou leading the charge. The Olympiacos striker made good use of Torosidis’ rush down the right-flank, finding the left-back with a through pass into plenty of space. An early cross from Torosidis was dealt well by the Slovakian defense, but a determined Katsouranis pounced on the clearance before sending in a cross of his own to the near post where a waiting Salpingidis managed to poke home a finish past a helpless Dusan Kuciak.
A surprise lead for Greece, who looked poor right from the start, stunned the crowd on hand at the Stadion Pasienky and deflated the home side certainly. But Slovakia would search for an equalizer with manager Michal Hipp introducing more attackers in search of a leveller.
A strong performance by Karnezis in the Greek net would deny the Slovaks any late heroics, but perhaps the best save came courtesy of the woodwork as the iron managed to deny Breznanik’s blistering drive late on.
Despite an extended added-time period, Greece held on for the result which keeps the 2004 European Champions on pace to reach the World Cup Finals in Brazil. A further win by Bosnia-Herzegovina, 3-0 over Lithuania in Zenica, means Group G spoils are shared ahead of the much-anticipated tie between Greece and Bosnia next March.
Greece will look for a better result when they travel to Zenica after the winter break, but the Ethniki will be targeting next month’s friendly with the Republic of Ireland as a chance to improve their form.
Slovakia 0-1 Greece
Slovakia (Michal Hipp): Kuciak (GK), Saláta, Škrtel (C), Zabavník, Kucka (82′ Guede), Breznaník, Hamšík, Sapara, Stoch (69′ Stoch), Pečovský, Ďuriš (72′ Holosko)
Greece (Fernando Santos): Karnezis (GK), Torosidis, Sokratis, Siovas (75′ Fotakis), Spyropoulos, Tziolis, Katsouranis (C), Salpingidis, Ninis (66′ Karagounis), Samaras, Gekas (59′ Mitroglou)
Referee: William Collum, Scotland
Venue: Stadion Pasienky, Bratislava, Slovakia