By Graham Wood
ATHENS (Reuters) - Kostas Mitroglou narrowly missed a hat-trick as Greece hit their stride and beat Romania 3-1 in the first leg of a World Cup qualifying playoff tie at the Georgios Karaiskakis stadium in Athens on Friday.
The Olympiakos Piraeus striker volleyed Greece in front after 14 minutes but the visitors hit back four minutes later via Bogdan Stancu's header from a clever Gabriel Torje free-kick.
The Greeks retook the lead seconds later with a Dimitris Salpingidis close-range finish, while Mitroglou added a third in the 66th to increase the advantage. Romania's Costin Lazar was then sent off in stoppage time.
Fernando Santos' team were well worth the victory that gave them every chance of securing a place in Brazil next year after the return leg against Victor Piturca's Romania in Bucharest on Tuesday.
"This was the kind of football that I want to see from my team, but it's not always possible to play this way in such matches where lots is at stake," the Portuguese coach told a news conference.
The result marked a rare goal blitz for Greece, whose low scoring in previous matches had left them in the play-offs after finishing behind European qualifying Group G winners Bosnia-Herzegovina on goal difference.
Friday's match saw a different dimension to the team, with Samaras and Salpingidis marauding down the flanks and Mitroglou proving a constant menace in a lone center forward role.
"I don't think something has changed suddenly, it was more of a case that we managed to take advantage of the scoring opportunities presented to us," said Santos.
"It's great to score goals but we have only done half a job. There is still plenty of work to do and we'll have to show the same appetite and concentration in the second leg so we don't throw away what we have built tonight."
After a frantic opening spell full of errors and niggly fouls, Greece settled first with Mitroglou beating the offside trap to latch on to a superb lofted through ball from Salpingidis and volley past Romania keeper Bogdan Lobont.
It was the start of a frantic six minutes, with Torje's whipped free-kick nodded in by Stancu at the back post and Greece then going ahead again with the Romanian celebrations barely over.
Some slack marking from the visitors allowed Celtic's Giorgos Samaras to pick out right back Vassilis Torosidis and his cross was slid home from close range by Salpingidis.
Torje presented Romania's main attacking threat with penetrating runs down the right channel while Razvan Cocis blazed just over the bar.
Neither side could maintain the tempo of the first half after the break but it was the irrepressible Mitroglou who provided the cutting edge, rifling home Kostas Katsouranis' flick-on from a Samaras free-kick.
Captain Katsouranis, who was booked and will miss the second leg, and Mitroglou missed further chances with the latter having a goal-bound effort blocked by Lobont to deny him what would have been a fifth hat-trick of the season.
Piturca said his team had made schoolboy errors.
"Greece were the better side and were worthy winners," he said. "Our hopes of qualifying are damaged but there is still the rematch in Bucharest to come and we will give everything.
"We knew that Greece are a very good team with players who could cause us problems but we were certainly not expecting to concede three goals.
"We managed to equalize but then only seconds later we conceded a second goal and what can I say about the third goal? It was like my players were playing in school."
(Reporting by Graham Wood, editing by Alan Baldwin)