Irish a rock but Greeks in 'ruins'

Northern Ireland need just two points from their final two qualifiers to book a spot in France next year. This feat will mark their first appearance in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.
Northern Ireland need just two points from their final two qualifiers to book a spot in France next year. This feat will mark their first appearance in a major tournament since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Contrasting fortunes for the two sides who meet today, as Albania can book Euro spot

LONDON • No two countries coming face to face in this week's 2016 European Championship qualifiers better reflect the rise and fall of football's fluctuating fortunes than Northern Ireland and Greece, who meet in Belfast today.

The two were in the same Euro 2004 qualifying pool just over a decade ago with Greece going through as group winners. Northern Ireland were a distant last, having not scored a goal and accruing only three points, all from draws.

Greece went on to stun the footballing world by becoming European champions the following year.

But they come to Belfast with that achievement a distant memory and their qualifying group positions reversed.

Northern Ireland, on the brink of their first major finals since the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, top the Group F standings with one defeat from eight games.

Greece, still without a permanent coach after a deal to bring German Bernd Schuster fell through at the 11th hour last week, are bottom with three points - all from draws.

Northern Ireland have 17 points, ahead of Romania (16) and Hungary (13). The Irish need just two points from their final two qualifiers against Greece, who will be led out by interim manager Kostas Tsanas, and Finland in Helsinki on Sunday to seal their place.

Michael O'Neill, however, will be without suspended striker Kyle Lafferty, whose seven goals in qualifying make him the joint third highest scorer behind Robert Lewandowski (10 for Poland) and Thomas Mueller (eight for Germany).

West Bromwich Albion defender Gareth McAuley should be fit for the game at Windsor Park although doubts remain about his club-mate Jonny Evans.

Northern Ireland are not the only minnows who are looking to create history today.

Albania have never been to a leading tournament before - they have never really been close before - but they will book their berth in France if they beat Serbia today and Denmark fail to win in Portugal.

Serbia have no chance of qualifying but are highly motivated to prevent their bitter opponents from doing so.

"We all want to spoil their plans and beat them so that they do not qualify," Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Stojkovic said.

The teams will meet in the Albanian city of Elbasan amid high-level security after last October's match in Belgrade had to be brought to a halt when violence broke out both on and off the pitch.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 08, 2015, with the headline 'Irish a rock but Greeks in 'ruins''. Print Edition | Subscribe