Northern Ireland clinched Nations League survival despite losing 2-1 to Greece after Kosovo did them a favour by beating Cyprus 5-1.
Ian Baraclough’s side went behind to on-loan Hull striker Dimitrios Pelkas’ goal after goalkeeper Bailey Peacock-Farrell made an error when coming to claim the ball, but bounced back quickly as Shayne Lavery dispatched Steven Davis’ inch-perfect cross.
Georgios Masouras restored Greece’s lead after a stray pass from Davis, before Petros Mantalos’ swerving effort from 25 yards out wrong-footed Peacock-Farrell and ensured the group winners finished with a flourish.
Northern Ireland finish third in Group C2, level on five points with Cyprus, ahead only on goal difference. While they avoid relegation, third place means they face the prospect of a tough Euro 2024 qualifying draw for the campaign that starts in March.
How Northern Ireland stumbled to safety
Jordan Thompson returned to the starting XI in one of three changes, but lasted only four minutes before taking a heavy blow in a midfield collision – although it took Northern Ireland several minutes to bring on George Saville as his replacement.
Fve minutes after they did get back up to 11 players, Northern Ireland trailed. Bailey Peacock-Farrell came for a deep cross but collided with Paddy McNair as he battled Fotis Ioannidis, spilling the ball into the path of Pelkas, who stooped to head home.
- Jonny Evans earned his 100th cap as he captained Northern Ireland in their Nations League match against Greece in Athens.
- Boss Ian Baraclough made three changes to the side that started Saturday’s vital 2-1 win over Kosovo, with Shayne Lavery, Ali McCann and Jordan Thomson coming in for Dion Charles, George Saville and Corry Evans.
- Conor McMenamin was among the substitutes after being cleared to play, having been withdrawn from the squad in Belfast after a social media video surfaced.
Northern Ireland needed only four minutes to draw level. Steven Davis picked up the pieces of a half-cleared free-kick and sent in a fine cross from the left, with Lavery on hand to side-foot the ball home from close range.
Two quick goals might have brought the contest to life, but after an offside Masouras hit a post for Greece it instead deteriorated into a sloppy first half of mis-placed passes and poor decisions.
Northern Ireland’s midfield trio – in which Ali McCann had replaced Corry Evans – was doing a good job of winning the ball but too often gave it straight back, while at the back attempts to play the ball out were inviting needless pressure.
Anastasios Bakasetas flashed a shot wide from a poor Peacock-Farrell pass early on, and then the Greece captain got another chance when Davis, earning his 140th cap, passed up an opportunity to clear and instead laid the ball off for the goalkeeper who only half-cleared under pressure.
Northern Ireland’s best chance before the break came in the 23rd minute when McCann won the ball and it rolled for Josh Magennis, who saw Odysseas Vlachodimos off his line but could not find the target.
Northern Ireland continued to try to play out from the back in the second half, and it cost them as Greece retook the lead in the 55th minute.
Masouras had time and space to tuck the ball away after being played in by Bakasetas, but the move began with a mis-placed pass from Davis on the edge of the area.
Greece threatened again moments later on a break, but Conor Bradley was out quickly to deny Kostas Tsimikas, while George Baldock then blazed a shot over.
Northern Ireland needed to regroup, and Baraclough sent on Dion Charles and Gavin Whyte for Lavery and Bradley, then Shane Ferguson and Conor McMenamin – the Glentoran winger cleared to play on Monday after a video shared on social media saw him kept out of the Kosovo game.
But no sooner had they come on, Mantalos put the game beyond reach. His shot had plenty of venom, but Peacock-Farrell will feel he could have done better.
Baraclough optimistic despite frustrating defeat
Northern Ireland manager Ian Baraclough:
“Of course they’re going to be frustrated, we’ve lost a game,” he said of the supporters. “You send them home happy at the weekend, this time we couldn’t salvage anything and they’ve shown their frustrations because they’ve seen the team lose.
“We were better in this window than we were in June. There was a lot of frustration in June. We were inexperienced. We’ve been better in these two games. We would have liked to have stayed unbeaten in these two games but it wasn’t to be.
“We know when we’ve got more experience squad around one or two of the youngsters we are better, we are improving. We have to get better, clearly, but that takes time.
“I was pleased with the first half, I thought our shape was very good out of possession, we moved the ball well and created one or two things.
“We fell behind but we showed good character to come back, Shayne got across his man and it was an excellent goal.
“At half-time we looked comfortable, they’d not really opened us up but in the second half we were frustrated, we couldn’t get our connections, passes were going astray and we weren’t getting up the thirds.
“We gave the ball away in an area where they could open us up with one pass. That’s a fine balance with playing out from the back.
“We were a little bit frustrated, we got a little bit disjointed shape-wise, and that can happen when people are trying to chase the game but it’s something we can learn from.”
Opta stats: Northern Ireland’s troubles on the road continue
- Northern Ireland have won only one of their last 13 competitive internationals away from home (D3 L9), and are winless in each of the last five (D1 L4).
- Northern Ireland have conceded 3+ goals in consecutive away games for the first time since June 2012 (0-6 v Netherlands following a 0-3 v Italy).
- Shane Lavery has been directly involved in three goals in his last four games for Northern Ireland, after scoring just once (and assisting none) in his previous 13.
- Jonny Evans made his 100th appearance for Northern Ireland, just the fourth player to hit that milestone for the county (also Steven Davis, Pat Jennings and Aaron Hughes).