Northern Ireland slumped to their third defeat of a poor Nations League campaign as they were beaten 3-1 by Greece in Athens, only spared a relegation play-off as Kosovo thrashed Cyprus 5-1.
Shayne Lavery quickly cancelled out Dimitrios Pelkas’ 14th-minute goal, but a scrappy, dis-jointed performance could muster no answer after Giorgos Masouras restored Greece’s advantage early in the second half, with a fine strike from Petros Mantalos settling it 10 minutes from time.
It was hardly a fitting night for Jonny Evans’ 100th cap, with the joy of Saturday’s late win over Kosovo at Windsor Park dissipated at the Georgios Kamaras Stadium as the 976 travelling fans gathered behind Ian Baraclough’s dugout made their feelings known, with some booing the manager at the final whistle.
Northern Ireland have avoided relegation but third place in League C Group 2 means they face the prospect of a tough Euro 2024 qualifying draw for the campaign that starts in March.
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 – though it took Northern Ireland several minutes to bring on George Saville as his replacement.
And five 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.
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 an historic video shared on social media saw him kept out of the Kosovo game.
But no sooner had they come on than Mantalos put the game beyond reach. His shot had plenty of venom, but Peacock-Farrell will feel he could have done better. The same would go for several of his team-mates.