After a goalless draw on March 26 against their former Soviet Union comrades in Armenia, June 4 marked the return leg with Russia playing the role of the host team at Luzhniki Stadium.
A win for Armenia would have meant topping the group with 11 points, 1 in front of Russia and, depending on the results from the other group matches later in the day, a point on top of the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia as well.
A tie would neither hurt nor help them. But a loss would potentially put them out of the group B qualification race altogether.
With these three scenarios in the back of the players’ and coaches’ minds, Armenia took to the field aiming for the win.
Although Armenia was the away team, they were not alone, bringing a strong supporting group from their country to cheer them on. During the Armenian national anthem, the Armenians in the stands waved their flags and held up scarves to show their belief in the team.
As the whistle blew to start the game, it was Russia that came out more ready, blistering chance after chance at Armenia’s net, keeping the back four busy and goalkeeper Roman Berezovsy scrambling not to let in an early goal, putting his team down from the beginning.
In the first five minutes, Russia had four chances to go up a goal, but Armenia, led by their captain and center-back Sargis Hovsepyan, stayed together, blocking the shots that were coming at them and clearing the ball behind the net, opting to defend the corner kicks rather than direct blasts from the center of the 16-yard box, due to blind, in-play clearing attempts.
Planned or not, Armenia’s defending efforts brought a few chances going the other way.
With Russia bringing up their mid-field, attempting to put the game away before it really had a chance to start, they left holes in the back. In the 10th minute, Yuri Movsisyan found the ball on his right foot, just off to the side of the attacking box, with one defender to beat and another between him and the young Russian goalkeeper, Igor Akinfeev. Putting the ball between his defender, Movsisyan went for goal only to have his shot deflect off the second defender and behind the net for a corner.
In the 14th minute, the play from both sides picked up drastically, but it was again Russia to come out the hungrier. One shot from defender Aleksandr Anyukov rolled past Berezovsy, but behind the far corner post, giving Armenia a bit of a scare and quieting their singing supporters.
With Russia still pressing Armenia from all sides, it was a cross from Berezovsky’s right side, which slowly came across his body, that produced further anxiety. The goal threat, compounded with Russia’s super-striker, Roman Pavlyuchenko, to his immediate left, waiting to open the scoring, placed more weight on Berezovsky to stop it, which he did by diving forward and wrapping the ball up before getting to Pavlyuchenko.
Not wanting to slow play, Armenia’s goalkeeper got to his feet in a hurry and looked up to play the ball to his defense. The mid-field and defense quickly transitioned the ball off the feed of their keeper and up the field to Movsisyan on the right side of the field.
Russia did a good job with Movsisyan, placing two defenders on him and stopping his forward progression. But what the Russians didn’t see was Marco Pizelli running through the middle with no one in sight to stop him.
Movsisyan, seeing his teammate making the run, crossed the ball to Pizelli’s feet, sending him off with only Akinfeev to beat. Akinfeev, not giving up easily, made the first move by getting off his line and closing off Pizelli’s goal angle. Knowing he couldn’t put it through with Akinfeev standing his ground, Pizelli slowed down his pace and decided to run in a right slant, away from the goal. This move caused Akinfeev to follow and, with the goalie moving, trying to smothering the ball by diving, Pizelli kicked the ball under Akinfeev’s diving body. As the ball rolled towards the net, it took a lucky bounce to goal, skipping over Anyukov’s foot, who made the run back from Armenia’s half of the field to cover the net.
Pizelli’s goal gave him two in four matches, and to the shock of the Russian supporters and the relief of the Armenians, Armenia went up 1-0 in the 25th minute.
The hardest part of being up 1-0, the saying goes, is getting past the first few minutes. Armenia didn’t seem to receive that message; instead of playing tough and closing down the mid-field, they opened up, giving Russia the prime opportunity to crawl back into the game.
One minute later, in the 26th, Russia found themselves once again attacking inside Armenia’s 16-yard box. A cross ball floated from right to left, and standing, once more, wide-open was Russia’s number 9, Pavlyuchenko.
Not wanting to give the chance for a defender’s deflection, he shot off the volley and side-footed the ball straight toward Berezovsky, who dove for the ball and saved it. The problem? He was inside the net when the save happened—that is, the ball had already crossed the line—and the goal was rightfully awarded to the home side, tying the game at one goal apiece.
Russia wasn’t done there, though. The goal swung the momentum their way and the pressure against Armenia went up.
In the 42nd minute, it was only the slightest of touches by Hovsepyan that denied Russia’s captain, and other super-striker Andrey Arshavin, a goal of his own to put his “red army” up 2-1. That stop ended the half and both teams went into the dressing rooms at 1-1.
Armenia did well defending Russia as a unit, in contrast to the previous match, when the defensive core was more like four individuals playing in defensive positions. But they still needed to do more, to either keep the score leveled or go up a goal in the second half.
Out for the second half, Russia picked up where they had left off, looking for the killer blow to put the game away, in both score and psyche. Again, Armenia’s back four were called to keep the ball out of the net, and once more, they were up for the challenge, clearing the chances away and holding Russia to the one goal.
Although Armenia kept the score tied, their players were getting tired and it showed, resulting in Armenia’s manager, Vardan Minasyan, to look at his bench for reinforcement. In the 55th minute, Edgar Manucharian came in, but he contributed little to nothing.
Then Pizelli’s number was up on the substitution board, ending his day and leaving the new Armenian side to get back to work without him. But their ambition to chase the glory of a victory left them weak at the back.
Another cross from inside Armenia’s 16-yard box found Pavlyuchenko open, and when any team leave a world-class striker, like he is, clear for that long, it usually means the ball going into the net—and that is exactly what happened. In an almost carbon copy of his first goal, his shot was off the volley and bounced to Berezovsky; but when the goalkeeper dove up and right, the ball rolled under him.
Russia up in the 59th minute, 2-1.
Even with the blow of being down, Armenia didn’t give up the fight and stayed in the match, getting a few chances to even the score up. To counter, Russia kept up their pace.
As the match went into the 70th minute, something in Armenia clicked and their work produced threatening goal opportunities. None went in, however, causing the Armenian players to grow in frustration, which showed when they dove at the Russians in ill-advised sliding tackles.
Continuing their run at Armenia, Russia’s mid-fielder, Yury Zhirkov, came in contact with Hovsepyan inside the 16-yard box and went down to ground. This innocent play with minimal contact was seen by the referee as a Hovsepyan infringement on Zhirkov’s progression, giving Russia a penalty kick, which was taken and converted with calm and poise by Pavlyuchenko. He fired the ball to the left of the goal flat-footing Berezovsky.
Russia, 3-1, with all goals coming off the feet of their hat-trick hero, Pavlyuchenko.
The dagger was put into the hearts of Armenia at that point. And just when all seemed lost, it was off a corner that Armenia headed the ball above Akinfeev’s head and into the net, 3-2, in stoppage time. The game was back on.
But wait, the linesman held his flag up: an Armenian foul in the box, goal disallowed.
At the final whistle, Armenia went down in defeat, 3-1.
The loss leaves the team in fourth place in the group, giving them a steep hill to climb in the qualification process for Euro Cup 2012.
How steep? Not only do they have to win all of their upcoming games, but the teams above them, like the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia, must also lose, because Armenia is trailing in points and goal difference—a double whammy. Thus, even if Armenia were to win all of their remaining games and end up tied with Ireland or Slovakia for second in the group, with possible advancement to Euro Cup 2012, they can still lose out, due to tie-breakers.
The race to qualify out of group B just got more intense. Remember, Armenia isn’t officially eliminated, and anything can happen from now until the end of the group phase in October.
Don’t stop believing.