Giorgos Masouras leaves Ireland’s qualification hopes hanging by a thread
Giorgos Masouras left the Republic of Ireland’s Euro 2024 qualification hopes hanging by a thread as they slumped to a 2-1 defeat in Greece.
Olympiakos midfielder Masouras scored the decisive goal in a victory for Gus Poyet’s side which leaves them with maximum points from their opening two Group B fixtures and Ireland with none heading into Monday’s home clash with Gibraltar.
Defender Nathan Collins had earlier cancelled out Tasos Bakasetas’ 15th-minute penalty to give the visitors hope, but in truth Stephen Kenny’s men, who had defender Matt Doherty dismissed in the dying seconds, were out-played for long periods at the OPAP Arena in Athens.
Trabzonspor’s Bakasetas, Masouras and Petros Mantalos tormented Ireland throughout and never allowed Josh Cullen, Jason Knight and Will Smallbone the control they needed to feed the men ahead of them.
Kenny had stopped short of dubbing the game a must-win affair in advance, but a difficult group, which also includes France and the Netherlands, has become an all but impossible one barely before it has begun in earnest.
With injuries limiting his options, Kenny had little choice to make changes to the XI which started the opening qualifier against the French in March and pitched Callum O’Dowda, Darragh Lenihan, Adam Idah and Smallbone, making a competitive debut, into battle.
Goalkeeper Gavin Bazunu had to claw a fifth-minute effort from defender Konstantinos Mavropanos out of his top corner and then, having seen Bakasetas’ piledriver deflected marginally wide, palmed another Mavropanos shot over the bar.
The visitors, who were repeatedly targeted with laser pens from the stands, were marooned deep inside their own half as Greece forced a series of early corners, and Bazunu had to rush from his line to deny Masouras with a challenge which sparked fevered calls for a penalty from the locals among a sparse crowd.
Their pleas may have gone unanswered on that occasion, but they did not with 15 minutes gone when Austrian referee Harald Lechner was advised to take a second look at O’Dowda’s block after Sheffield United defender George Baldock had crossed from the right.
Bakasetas took charge from 12 yards and drilled the resulting spot-kick past the helpless Bazunu to give the Greeks a lead they deserved.
Pantelis Hatzidiakos very nearly handed the Republic a route back into the game when he stabbed Doherty’s cross inches wide of his own goal, but the reprieve proved temporary when Evan Ferguson flicked Smallbone’s 27th-minute corner across goal and Collins timed his arrival to perfection to level, albeit after another VAR check.
Bazunu had to get down well to claim a skidding attempt from Bakasetas and saw another fiercely-struck attempt from the midfielder deflected just past his right post, and Ferguson chanced his arm from halfway as a frenetic first half careered towards its conclusion.
Ireland had simply not got to grips with Greece’s 4-3-3 formation before the break, and they were undone once again within four minutes of the restart when Bakasetas slid the ball into Masouras’ run into the penalty area and watched him curl a shot around Bazunu to restore his side’s lead.
Kenny, who had replaced Idah with Mikey Johnston at the break, sent on James McClean – winning his 99th cap – and Jason Knight in the aftermath of the goal with Greece smelling blood.
To their credit, Ireland belatedly started to take the game to their hosts and Collins was denied a spectacular second by Odysseas Vlachodimos’ flying save with 18 minutes remaining.
Former Celtic frontman Giorgos Giakoumakis could have wrapped up the win 11 minutes from time after working his way into a good shooting position, but lifting his effort harmlessly over the bar.
Doherty might have levelled with a stoppage-time snapshot which was saved by Vlachodimos, and his misery was compounded at the death when he was sent off as tempers flared.