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Gus Poyet says Greece must beware of 'special' Evan Ferguson

The Greece manager is expecting a front-foot Irish performance in a game he says is a ‘must-win for both’.

GREECE MANAGER GUS Poyet says his side will have to beware of Evan Ferguson in tomorrow night’s Euro 2024 qualifier in Athens [KO 7.45pm; Live RTE Two]. 

Poyet is a former Brighton manager, and has been impressed with Ferguson’s breakout, six-goal season at the club. 

“He is at the right club for sure, I think it is a great step”, Poyet told media at his pre-game press conference. “I always say that when a player is able to perform at the level he has in the Premier League at his age, then he is a special player. Normally when you are at a club you see potential in  certain players and you are thinking about putting him in but you are always worried as a coach whether he is going to be able to deal with the power and the intensity and he has been incredible. When Robero De Zerbi is playing him week in week out when he is fit he has shown that he can do it. So it is a little bit of work for our defenders and plenty of attention to him.” 

There is no doubt that Ferguson will lead the line for Ireland tomorrow night. 

“Evan has emerged quicker than we could have anticipated”, said Stephen Kenny. “He’s done brilliant for Brighton in the Premier League. We’re delighted to have him. He’s trained really well this week. Such a young player, you wouldn’t want to put too much on his shoulders, because we’ve got five good young forwards in the squad. He has got terrific ability. We’d love to see that emerge over the next week.”

Ireland and Greece are the third and fourth seeds in their qualifying group, and this is both sides’ second game of the campaign. But in spite of all of this, Poyet says the stakes are high for both sides given that qualification will entail finishing ahead of either France or the Netherlands. 

“The reality for both of us is if we don’t win tomorrow it’s going to be very difficult to be able to finish second. I think it’s a must-win for both of us. That brings a special situation for the game so early in the group unless you go and beat France and Holland.” 

Stephen Kenny was less fatalistic when he answered the same question at his press conference. 

“It’s only the second game in the group”, said Kenny. “I don’t think anything is decided so early.”

Stephen Kenny beamed with either joy or relief in confirming that all of Ireland’s 25-man squad is fit, coming through an intensive, 10-day training camp in Turkey designed to rid players of their ring-rust, given 14 members of the squad have not played since their Championship/League One seasons ended on 8 May. 

gus-poyet Ryan Byrne / INPHO Ryan Byrne / INPHO / INPHO

Ireland started their campaign with a narrow 1-0 loss to France at home in March, but Poyet is expecting a more attacking approach from his opponents tomorrow night. 

“We are expecting a very aggressive – but aggressive in a good way – competitive, probably pressing a little bit higher like they did in the previous friendly at home against Latvia. So we are preparing expecting a different kind of approach from the team because they need to go for the win like us. It is a key game for both.” 

Unlike Ireland, Greece are guaranteed a safety net in the form of a Nations League play-off for the Euros. A byzantine system of results have to play themselves out before Ireland know if they’ll have a backdoor to Germany, with the odds suggesting it’s more likely than not. Poyet admits this fact will allow Greece play with a little more freedom. 

“Not to put pressure on Ireland myself but I would say we have a back-up and the possibility of [qualifying]another way and the freedom to play a little more like: ‘Okay, we’re going to go forward and win the game.’ There is no drama if you lose the game because we have another opportunity.” 

Greece have home advantage but don’t look set to be able to lean on a fervent home support, with ticket sales sluggish to the point that some are estimating there will be only 10,000 people in the stadium. Cognisant of this, Poyet has dedicated many of his media appearances to urging fans to come to the stadium, which is brand-new home of AEK Athens. 

Players will wear black armbands to honour the victims of Tuesday night’s boat disaster, in which 78 people died and hundreds more remain missing. Greece has declared a three-day period of national mourning, but tomorrow night’s qualifier will go ahead as planned. 

Asked for his opinion on whether the game should go ahead, Poyet replied, “It is difficult to make an opinion on decisions. Sometimes you just need to adapt and think what is better for the whole world. But things are happening every day everywhere so it is difficult to know when to cancel a game or not.”

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