Greece claimed top spot in Group 6 and a place at UEFA EURO 2004™ next summer thanks to Vassilios Tsiartas's penalty midway through the second half against a spirited Northern Ireland at the Apostolos Nikolaidis stadium in Athens.
Needing victory to make sure of a place in Portugal after an impressive run of five consecutive qualifying wins without conceding a goal, Greece dominated, but were made to wait until Zisis Vryzas was brought down in the box by George McCartney to give Tsiartas the chance to score from the spot.
McCartney was sent off for his challenge, which earned his second booking of the evening. Sammy McIlroy's side have now failed to score in 13 matches but they will take heart from a performance that made Greece's passage through to the finals considerably more difficult than the 16,000 supporters at the stadium might have anticipated.
With Tsiartas influential in the centre and Stylianos Giannakopoulos and Giourkas Seitaridis probing down the right, Northern Ireland were put on the defensive from the start, but Otto Rehhagel's side struggled to make their possession count. On eight minutes Vryzas broke through but shot over from close range, then Maik Taylor was Northern Ireland's saviour on 24 minutes when he dived low to his left to keep out Angelos Charisteas's drive.
Gillespie comes close
Northern Ireland, looking for their first goal in 1,152 minutes, offered little in the way of attacking threat in the opening period, coming closest when Keith Gillespie, captain for the night on his 50th international appearance, sent a looping header just over in the 33rd minute.
Taylor to the rescue
That offered the Northern Ireland defence a brief respite, but Greece were soon back at them, Taylor saving from Charisteas and Seitaridis in quick succession. The save of the half, however, came a minute before the break when the Birmingham City FC goalkeeper stretched to his right to tip away Tsiartas's stinging long-range drive.
With Spain winning in Armenia, Greece were forced to up the tempo after the break, but the dogged resistance from Sammy McIlroy's side continued well into the second half. Indeed with Greece committing men forward, Northern Ireland came close to ending their goal drought on the break after 66 minutes, Traianos Dellas scrambling across to block Danny Griffin's attempt on goal.
Vryzas hauled down
Three minutes later, the outcome of the tie and Group 6 was decided. Vryzas was played in behind the Northern Ireland defence by a deft ball over the top from Tsiartas which was flicked on by Giannakopoulos, and as he closed in on goal the desperate McCartney hauled him down. Tsiartas put the ball beyond Taylor's outstretched arm low in to the right corner and the stadium erupted.
There was still time for one more nervous moment for Greece, Dellas misjudging a cross from the left and the ball falling to the unmarked substitute Andy Smith. His shot from five metres, however, sailed over the bar and Greece, much to Spain's disappointment, had survived to reach the final stage of a UEFA European Championship for the first time since 1980.
"Congratulations to Greece," said Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy after the game. "We came to spoil the party and nearly did it. Greece were beginning to panic before the penalty. I fancied Spain to win the group but they made some mistakes.
Greece deserved [to qualify] because they went to Spain and did the business."