Greece keeps its play-off hopes alive with tight win

It could not have been a tighter victory for Greece in Kazakhstan yesterday as substitute Nikos Lymberopoulos struck in its winning goal deep into injury time to keep alive its play-off hopes for a place at next summer’s World Cup finals. The national team needed to battle until the very end for a 2-1 win in Almaty against a side that went into the encounter with nine losses from as many games in the European Zone’s Group 2. But, in all fairness, it should also be kept in mind that the group’s winner, Ukraine, registered the exact same result in Almaty a year ago, early in qualifying competition. Kazakhstan played the last few minutes of yesterday’s game against Greece with nine players after Andrey Karpovich and Denis Rodionov were shown red cards for fouls and arguing with the referee. «Only after we allowed a goal in did our team wake up,» Greece coach Otto Rehhagel. «We played our best in the end and made successful substitutions. Step by step we are making our way to the finals – but I do not want to anticipate that,» he added. Ukraine – which went into its game yesterday, against Turkey in Kiev, having already sealed Group 2’s top spot and its first-ever World Cup finals appearance – lost 1-0. It was Ukraine’s first defeat in 11 games. Ukraine and Turkey, both with a game to go, are on 24 and 20 points respectively. Greece, which has two games remaining, including a tough away expedition against Denmark next month, lies third with 18 points. Also with two games to play, Denmark, which trounced Georgia 6-1, lies two points behind Greece in fourth place. All three can still hope for a berth at next year’s World Cup. Returning to yesterday’s cliff-hanger in Almaty, Greece struggled throughout the game against a determined home side with nothing left to lose and solid support from a vocal home crowd of some 20,000 fans. Greece went into the game needing to break a six-game scoring drought for its make-or-break victory. It was not until the European champions conceded a goal early in the second half, in the 52nd minute, that Greece was stunned into action. Nurbol Zhumaskaliyev opened the scoring by slamming the ball into the net from point-blank range after a curling cross rebounded off Angelos Basinas. Greece equalized in the 79th minute when Bolton Wanderers’ Stelios Giannakopoulos rose high to send in a powerful header from the 6-yard box. Then, minutes later, and following a couple of near misses for the desperate visitors as they threw itself into attack, Lymberopoulos, who came on in the 53rd minute, scored the winner in the 94th minute, with a minute of injury time left. He shrewdly tapped over the keeper from close range after being fed in a congested box.