Much relieved and a little shame-faced, Greece reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship finals here last night despite losing to Russia.
The Greeks finished Group A in second place with four points, the same as Spain but they went through on goals scored - two more than the Spanish - courtesy of the 42nd minute effort of Zisis Vrizas.
Russia got down to work immediately the whistle blew and got off to a magnificent start with two goals in the first 17 minutes. The first, after just 71 seconds by Dmitri Kirchenko, was the fastest goal scored in the history of the European Championship finals.
Had the Greeks finished top of their Group, they would have expected to meet England in Lisbon for a place in the last four. But now it is likely that they will meet the Group B winners, perhaps France who take on Switzerland in Coimbra today - in which case the French will be able to take nothing for granted.
Otto Rehhagel's side have shown in their three games here that they are capable of taking on and beating the best even though they did make a desperately slow start to their third game against the revitalised Russians.
"It took us some seconds to understand what happened tonight," the Greece midfielder Theodoros Zagorakis said. "We fulfilled all our promises. We made Greece not just the talk of Europe but also of the world."
Rehhagel said: "Today there will only be joy, no criticism. We have already won everything. Every opponent from now on is a comfortable one. We have nothing more to lose. We will enjoy the success and look forward to the quarter-finals."
With two goals in the opening 17 minutes, Russia's failure to score hitherto was all the more mysterious. Just over a minute had elapsed when a poor clearance by the Greek goalkeeper Antonis Nikopolidis was compounded by a failure to clear by Traianos Dellas, the former Sheffield United player.
Costas Katsouranis proceeded to bang the ball against Kirichenko, who celebrated his first start of the tournament by thumping Russia ahead.
They almost had another moments later when Aleksandr Anyukov appealed for a penalty after going down in the area following a clumsy challenge by Dimtrios Papadopoulos. But the French referee Gilles Veissiere awarded a corner which was taken by Rolan Gusev and volleyed over by Andrei Karayka.
Georgi Yartsev, the Russia coach, had made seven changes to his side, two of them forced by suspension. Ironically it was a player returning from a one-match ban, Roman Sharonov, who was booked, moments after he had suffered a nasty mid-air collision with his own team-mate Vadim Evseev. But Yartsev's much-changed team maintained the pressure with Dmitri Bulykin, their powerful striker, scoring their second goal with a thunderous diving header from Gusev's next right-wing corner.
Greece had not looked dangerous at all until Basinas tested Viacheslav Malafeev with an awkward free kick. Katsouranis then shot over when well placed before Russia regained the initiative following a neat move down the right involving Gusev and Bulykin which led to Karayka blazing over.
There was a similar escape for Russia down the other end moments later when Angelos Charisteas fired over after Stylianos Venetidis had created the chance for him with a run down the left.
The respite was temporary. Greece got back into the game with a goal they barely deserved. It followed a corner from the right and a shot by Papadopoulos that was blocked. Vrizas squeezed home the rebound to give his country's large band of supporters hope that they might, after all, prevail.
Spurred on by their goal, Greece went on the attack after the break with their substitute Vassilios Tsiartas having a low shot held by Malafeev.
The rekindled spirit among the Russians was soon back in evidence, however. Kirchenko hooked a shot into the crowd behind the goal before Dmitri Sychev unleashed a powerful drive that was well parried by the Russian goalkeeper.
The Russians spent most of the second half being pushed back as the Greeks discovered an urgency that had been manifestly lacking in their early play.Reuse content