Virgil van Dijk was the hero as the Netherlands took a major Euro 2024 advantage over Greece, despite a number of obstacles in the captain’s way.
With France leading the way, Group B in the qualifying rounds for next summer’s Euros took a decisive twist on Monday night.
Greece were sat in second heading into their clash with the Netherlands, with Ronald Koeman’s side sitting three points below them with a game in hand.
It took a Van Dijk penalty in the third minute of stoppage time to secure a 1-0 victory for the Dutch – and take control of the last automatic qualifying spot.
Netherlands had already seen one spot-kick saved midway through the first half, with Wout Weghorst denied having seen a laser pen shone in his eyes during the run-up.
Those same tricks were pulled from the crowd for Van Dijk’s effort, but the centre-back stepped up and slotted into the top corner with ice-cold confidence.
“You try to stay calm, but that wasn’t easy with the VAR check and all those laser pointers,” the 32-year-old reflected, in quotes carried by De Telegraaf.
Koeman had already acknowledged the presence of laser pens in the crowd at AEK Athens games beforehand, urging UEFA to intervene if it happened on Monday.
His side had played through a rough clash at the Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens, with the Greek fans creating a ferocious atmosphere to give Kostas Tsimikas and his team-mates a boost.
Another factor, according to both Van Dijk and Weghorst, was the state of the pitch, which the latter described as “the worst pitch I have ever played on.”
“There were stones on it!” the striker added, with Van Dijk quoted by NOS as saying: “Terrible. That this field is allowed at this level is unimaginable.”
Victory puts Netherlands level on points with Greece but above them via head-to-head results and with a game in hand, having beaten Gus Poyet’s side twice in qualifying.
Tsimikas played the full 90 minutes of the game as a left wing-back.
Elsewhere on Monday night, Diogo Jota came off the bench for the final 24 minutes as Portugal saw off Bosnia and Herzegovina with a 5-0 win.
Mohamed Salah played the full game as Egypt slipped in the third minute of added time to draw 1-1 with Algeria in their friendly.
And finally, Harvey Elliott captained England U21s for the first time as a starter, assisting their second goal in an unfortunate 3-2 defeat to Ukraine.