Theofanis Gekas struck on four separate occasions, and Giorgos Samaras added another as Greece overturned a 2-1 first-half deficit to Latvia at the OAKA Spyros Louis Stadium. The Greek capital looked to have been in for a somber evening after Maris Verpakovskis tallied twice before the interval.
But it was Greece, lead by their star strikers, who emerged in the second half, and now look certain to qualify for next summer’s showpiece event in South Africa.
The match got off to a flying start as Greece, knowing anything but a win would be detrimental to their hopes of qualifying, took the early initiative through Theofanis Gekas on four minutes. Giorgos Karagounis provided the cross from the right wing by picking out Gekas, and the Bayer Leverkusen striker beat two Latvian defenders to net a slick header past Latvian ‘keeper Andris Vanins and just inside the upright.
The Greeks, not keen on sitting back and defending their early lead, returned with another attack just minutes later. A similar play unfolded for the home side, but this time Vanins was equal to the task of a header from Giorgos Samaras.
Despite an early rampage from the Greeks, Latvia were not to be forgotten and Maris Verpakovskis assured just that as he levelled the score on twelve minutes. The veteran Latvian currently plying his trade in Greece with Ergotelis silenced the home crowd as he notched a sharp strike past Alexandros Tzorvas – Kostas Chalkias’ surprise replacement for the evening. The Panathinaikos ‘keeper was left stranded as he first denied Girts Karlsons, only to be outdone by Verpakovskis on the follow-up.
It didn’t take long for the Greeks to get going again, with the always influential Karagounis leading the charge once again. The Panathinaikos midfielder looked to propel Greece back in front and nearly did so when his effort from long-distance caught the crossbar before going out of bounds.
Giourkas Seitaridis’ surprise inclusion to the starting line-up was a hot topic ahead of kick-off. The Panathinaikos defender – who has yet to play for the Athens giants since joining on a free transfer from Atletico Madrid – looked to provide a new talking point as he sent his twenty-first minute effort just over the crossbar.
Quickly transitioning to the other end, Latvia had a chance to take command as Verpakovskis snuck behind the Greek defence to get a hold of a lobbed pass but the 29-year-old sent his effort just wide of Tzorvas’ goal.
But with Verpakovskis looking so potent in front of goal, it was just a matter of time until he grabbed a second. He did just that on forty-minutes, as Latvia’s all-time leading scorer further improved on his impressive scoring total to give Latvia a late first-half lead and control heading into the second half. It was a sharp passing play from the visitors that exposed the Greek defense, as Karlsons laid a back-pass for his strike partner to slot home a neat finish past Tzorvas.
It was all go at the OAKA Spyrous Louis Stadium...
The OAKA Spyrous Louis Stadium had just a dull roar at the interval, notably coming from the Latvian end of the stadium as the travelling supporters had something to cheer while the Greeks were left winded at half-time.
However, just like the first half, Gekas injected life into the home crowd and Greece’s quest to reach South Africa as the Leverkusen striker converted a penalty after Samaras was brought down inside the Latvia box.
It wasn’t until Gekas struck again, however, that the Greek fanatics on hand at OAKA burst into a ruckus. An in-form Vasilis Torosidis eluded markers on the left wing, before finding the Gekas inside the box; the latter making no mistake with a soft-header past Vanins.
Despite a lack of first team action with Leverkusen, Gekas continued to prove his abilities as he came close to notching a fourth sixty-five minutes with a bouncing effort at his mercy; however, Vanins was not willing to concede another to Greece’s main threat up front.
With the rest of the Greek attack looking numb inside the box, Gekas continued to assert himself on the Latvian defense to come even closer to a fourth with a half-volley forcing Vanins to be at his best to force a corner.
Off the ensuing corner, however, it was another striker that pushed Greece further ahead. Karagounis’ corner was met by Samaras at the near post, but when Vanins blocked the initial tip-on form the Celtic striker, Samaras displayed great skill with an overhead kick to beat Vanins for a spectacular finish.
Latvia, seemingly deflated by Greece’s renewed attack after the break, could only rely on set-pieces to inch towards Tzorvas’ goal. Even those efforts, however, were misleading of their first-half performance as Aleksandrs Starkovs looked nothing but ordinary in the attacking half.
The visitors did have one notable chance before the match’s conclusion, a low strike from second-half substitute Andrejs Pereplotkins caused minimal trouble for Tzorvas.
But the evening belonged to Gekas, who netted his fourth of the match seconds before full-time in the Greek capital, as he out-muscled two Latvian defenders to poke the loose ball into Vanins’ empty net.
Peter Katsiris, Goal.com
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