LONDON (Reuters) – No two countries coming face to face in this week’s European qualifiers better emphasise the rise and fall of football’s fluctuating fortunes than Northern Ireland and Greece, who meet in Belfast on Thursday.
The two nations were in the same Euro 2004 qualifying pool just over a decade ago with Greece going through as group winners and Northern Ireland a distant last having not scored a goal and accrued only three points, all from draws.
Greece of course stunned 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, while Greece are bottom with three points — all from draws.
Northern Ireland have 17 points, ahead of Romania on 16 and Hungary on 13.
The Irish need just two points from their final two qualifiers against Greece and then Finland in Helsinki on Sunday to seal their place.
Unlike their British neighbours Wales, on the verge of their first finals since the 1958 World Cup, Northern Ireland do not have a standout world class talent like Gareth Bale.
Instead coach Michael O’Neill has blended together a team of good but hardly outstanding players, with striker Kyle Lafferty’s seven goals in qualifying making him the joint third highest scorer behind Robert Lewandowski (10 for Poland) and Thomas Mueller (eight for Germany).
Unfortunately for O’Neill, Lafferty is suspended for the game at the partly-renovated Windsor Park, but West Bromwich Albion defender Gareth McAuley should be fit although doubts remain about his club mate and former Manchester United defender Jonny Evans.
Greece, who arrive in Belfast looking to salvage some pride from what has been a shocking campaign, are still without a permanent coach after a deal to bring German Bernd Schuster fell through at the 11th hour last week.
Under-21 coach Kostas Tsanas continues to act as interim boss following the sacking of Uruguayan Sergio Markarian in August.
Greece will be without AS Roma defender Kostas Manolas, who is suspended, and injured Bayer Leverkusen defender Kyriakos Papadopoulos. Those absences meant a first call-up for young AEK Athens defender Adam Tzanetopoulos.
(Writing by Graham Wood and Mike Collett; editing by Toby Davis)