Soccer: Armenia’s Rude Awakening

On Wed., Aug. 10, Armenia’s national soccer team was in Kaunas, Lithuania, to take on Lithuania in a friendly match at the S. Dariaus and S. Girėno Stadium. With both teams ranked in the bottom half of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) world ranking—Lithuania 58th and Armenia 70th—and both struggling in their European Cup qualifying groups, it seemed as though the match would be between two equals. In reality, it was anything but even.

It only took nine minutes for the Lithuanians to open the scoring, and it came from a brilliantly taken corner kick off the foot of Lithuania’s Edgaras Cesnauskis.

The ball bent inside the six-yard box, over the heads of the Armenian defenders and right onto the head of his teammate, Arunas Klimavicius, who flew into the box like a bullet and used his speed and towering stature to power the ball through the clutter of bodies and through Armenia’s goalkeeper, Karen Israelyan.

The early goal gave the Armenians a steep hill to climb, but with the Lithuanians taking their feet off the gas, they let Armenia take control of the match. Two minutes later, a lobe pass sent Armenia’s Marcos Pizzelli off to retrieve the ball and gain an opportunity to score.

Only two things stood in his way: The ball bouncing, and a lanky, pesky defender, Andrius Skerla, nudging him off the ball to his right.     These two factors, coupled with the goalkeeper rushing out, caused Pizzelli to lunge his right foot, hoping to make contact with the ball and soar it, either over, under, or to the side of the keeper. Although he managed to slightly graze the ball’s stitching, it was an easy catch for Lithuania’s goalkeeper, Žydrūnas Karčemarskas.

The only real scare to Lithuania in the first half came from an Armenian corner-kick, which was straight with no real bend—an easy clear for Lithuania’s defender, Skerla.

With the ball traveling straight and strong through the air, however, it was difficult to control. When Skerla put his head to deflect the ball out of play, the ball, instead of going to the side, behind the goal, and away from the goal, came back, straight at the goal, and if it weren’t for an inch to the right, the ball would have been put, embarrassingly, into his own net.

Lucky for him, the ball skimmed the post and went back for another corner, with which Armenia did nothing.

After an entertaining first half, the second half got off to a slow start.

Apart from a Lithuanian corner kick just inside five minutes, the crowd, managers, and players, both on and off the field, were yawning.

In the 58th minute, Armenia brought into the field their third of four substitutes, Yura Movsisyan (in a friendly match, there is no three substitutes limit; teams can bring on as many substitutions as they want) and from the second he walked onto the field Armenia’s game picked up. In the 65th, Movsisyan dribbled the ball around and through a number of Lithuanians and found himself inside the six-yard box with Karčemarskas scrambling to jump onto the ball and stop him from scoring.

Movsisyan, seeing the goalie come out to attack, dribbled around, leaving Karčemarskas flat on his back with his arms and legs flaying, trying to cover as much as the net as possible. As Movsisyan went to turn and kick the ball over Karčemarskas, the latter got up and ran directly at him from the right.

With this new pressure, Movsisyan slipped, and after tremendous effort to get into the box, made minimal contact with the ball. Karčemarskas jumped to control the ball underneath him. Sixteen minutes later, in the 76th minute, Lithuania, attacking Armenia’s back four, caught a break when the ball bounced and hit the hand of a defender, resulting in a free-kick to Lithuania, just at the corner of the 12-yard box, to the left of the goal.

Up stepped Lithuania’s Cesnauskis and, with ease and calm, again bent the ball, this time around Armenia’s wall and into the far bottom right corner of the net, 2-0. The nail in Armenia’s coffin came in the 78th, on a run by none other than Cesnauskis. He took the ball, untouched, into Armenia’s six-yard box, just to the right of Israelyan. Putting his right foot back to shoot, the ball was targeted for the far left corner; on the way to goal, though, the ball was deflected by the defender standing in front of him, and made to slowly roll across the top of the six-yard box.

Seeing the ball rolling in front of him, Israelyan went to the ground, but the ball continued to roll, slightly out of the reach of his out-stretched arms. It came to a rest at the feet of Lithuania’s striker, Ricardas Beniusis, who happened to be waiting, unmarked, on the other side of the post. And it was an easy tap into the gaping net, 3-0. Match to Lithuania.

Throughout the entire game, Armenia was outmanned, out-muscled, and outsized by their counterparts. They were picked apart on both the offensive and defensive sides of the field. Armenia’s strikers had no help from the mid-field; and on the rare occasion the ball did get into the box for a scoring chance, Lithuania’s’ tree-like defenders had little to no trouble clearing it.

But, don’t be discouraged, this is why friendlies are played: It showed Armenia what it needs to work on for upcoming matches. With Euro 2012 qualifications still in sight (Armenia has four matches left and has on 8 points, which is five points behind co-leaders Russia, the Republic of Ireland, and Slovakia, who are on 13.), Armenia needs to improve soon. One or two losses at this point in the competition can dash their hopes of qualifying.

Maybe 21-year old Araz Özbiliz (who plays for Ajax of the Dutch league) who, contrary to reports, has not yet agreed to play with Armenia (possibly because he is holding out for the Netherlands to give him a run out), can help Armenia with its cross-balls and counterattacks from the mid-field. But Armenia can’t rely on him; the team needs to work with what they have and take it one match at a time—without worrying about what could happen as a result of a win or loss.

With Armenia in Group B for the 2014 World Cup qualifications in Brazil—grouped with the 2006 World Cup Champions, Italy, along with other European powers, Denmark and Czech Republic—the 2012 Euro Cup could be their only shot at playing in the finals of a European or world tournament in the foreseeable future.

But remember, matches aren’t won on paper and anything can happen. With one victory here and there, rounded out with shock wins or ties and some help from other group results, all can change.

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Antranig Dereyan

Born and raised in New Jersey, Antranig Dereyan graduated from Rowan University with a bachelor’s in journalism. He contributes frequently to the Armenian Weekly with sports pieces. He also freelances for other online sites and newspapers.

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