Knowing that a tie wouldn’t help them and a loss would surely mean elimination from the European Cup qualifications, Armenia pulled off a second-half dominating win against Slovakia on Tues., Sept. 6, in the Stadion MSK Zilina.
During the first 10 minutes of the match, Armenia looked scared and allowed Slovakia to take control. Shot after shot, the Slovakian forwards blasted on Armenia’s net, but Armenia’s goalkeeper, Roman Berezovski—number one in the program and number one in Armenian hearts—saved the day. He dove to his right, dove quickly to his left, punching the ball up, away, above, or to the side of the net, and leaving the Slovakians off the scoresheet. Slovakia spent the first-half taking shooting practice, but Berezovski was the wall they couldn’t break through.
The first chance for Armenia came in the 18 minute, from Yuri Movsisyan’s right foot. Positioned right outside the 12-yard box, he shot the ball with force, but the try was blocked off by Slovakian defender Martin Skrtel. Throughout the half, Armenia had a few more chances on net, as Marcos Pizzelli, Arthur Yedigaryan, and even Movsisyan gave it their best shot. But the ball just trailed wide, high, or to the side, or was blocked off completely.
The half belonged to Berezovski with the best sequence of saves coming between the 20th and 30th minute mark, while top-class Slovakian defender Martin Skrtel put on his attacking boots and did all he could to distract the Armenian keeper as his teammates continued to bombard him with missile shots.
In the 26th minute, off a corner kick, Slovakian forward Filip Holosko put his head up to deflect the ball into the net. While he only managed to graze the ball, it was enough to bring Berezovski back into action. Diving to his left, Berezovski used his left hand to swat the ball down, but the ball came to the feet of Holosko’s teammate Marek Hamsik, who put the ball back on goal, causing Armenia’s tired goalkeeper back on his toes. But, once again, he was up to the challenge.
Employing his feet, Berezovski kicked the ball up in the air, heading straight out of the 12-yard box, but with Armenia’s back-line unable to handle the height or power of the ball, a waiting Skrtel right-footed the ball back to goal. This time, it was Armenia’s right-back and captain, Sargis Hovsepyan, who slid in to block the shot away from net.
Other than Hovsepyan’s play, Armenia’s back-line was invisible, unable to match up to the taller Slovakian forwards, and unable to take control of the ball while in their defending box. They left Berzovski out to dry. Time and time again, though, Berezovski came up with the big saves when called upon. If it weren’t for Berezovski’s heroics, Armenia could have (and probably should have) been down four or five goals.
Just as an added measure, right before the half in the 44th minute, Berezovski stonewalled another Slovakian chance by Marek Hamsik. Standing on the center line of the 12-yard box, Hamsik aimed a shot to the bottom-right corner that appeared to be going in untouched, but Armenia’s super-keeper dove in and saved the ball once again.
It is only fitting that in a match so one-sided in the first, that the second half be tilted the other way. Yes, that would be fair, but soccer isn’t always fair and Slovakia picked up where they had left off, trying to get to the goal and open the scoring.
This time, however, Berezovski wasn’t called on to bailout Armenia; instead, it was the offside flag doing the dirty work.
Slovakia looked fatigued after the offsides call in the 48th, and Armenia, battered, bruised, and bloody, rose up to finally answer the bell.
Like Muhammad Ali employing the strategy of “Let the opponent hit us until he is tired” or “rope-a-dope,” the Armenians sprung to life. Starting in the 52nd minute, an overall fresh Armenian lineup picked up their pace and got desperate, shooting often and at every chance they had, from anywhere on the field: Arthur Yedigaryan, from about 35-yards out, took a chance, and if not for a few inches to the left, the scoring would have been opened right then and there; In the 56th minute, Pizzelli’s left-footed try from behind the center of the 12-yard box was blocked wide, resulting in a corner kick.
The corner did very little to trouble the Slovakians, thanks to a towering, clearing header from Skrtel, but the one thing that Armenia has learned from being in this group is never give up. Movsisyan, running to the ball, even though it was clearly in control of the Slovakian mid-field, managed to put his right foot in the way of a pass, deflecting the ball back towards his attacking goal. He dribbled the ball left and away from the goalkeeper, and shot the ball to his right, out of the reach of the out-stretched left arm of the sprawled keeper, 1-0 to Armenia.
The Slovakians looked deflated and shocked, unable to believe that with all their chances, they were now losing the game.
Having the Slovakians in disbelief, Armenia kept fighting on, and in the 70th minute, with three defenders all over him and standing just outside the 12-yard box, slightly to the right, Henrikh Mkhitaryan took a chance and shot the ball to net. Everyone in the stadium waited in silence for the Slovakian goalkeeper to cradle the ball and get the game moving in the opposite direction, but the goalkeeper was out of position. The ball slowly rolled to the bottom-left corner with the Slovakians just watching. And just like that, Armenia was up 2-0.
Ten minutes later, Armenia picked up their third. Pushing their way up the field, a through ball (a pass to a teammate into an open area of the field, where the recipient can run without breaking stride) to Mkhitaryan put him, along with his teammate, Gevorg Ghazaryan, two on only one defender, and the keeper behind. Getting past the defender, Mkhitaryan dribbled towards the goal. When the goalkeeper came out to challenge, Mkhitaryan lightly passed the ball across goal to a waiting Ghazaryan, who only had to tap the ball into the vacant net, 3-0 to Armenia.
With the game over at 3-0 in the 80th, Armenia added a fourth in the 91st minute to seal the victory. Coming off of a passing error by Skrtel, Mkhitaryan intercepted the ball and ran back towards Slovakia’s goal with another chance to score and only the goalie in the way. Running around the goalkeeper, Mkhitaryan chipped the ball over the goalie’s left shoulder, but it smacked the bar and bounced down. Luckily, the substitute striker, Artur Sarkisov, was waiting underneath the goal. With a quick flick of his head, in went the fourth goal, ending the game with a well-deserved Berzovskia shutout and three points.
Now, here is where the fun begins. Since Russia didn’t give Armenia much help—tying Ireland earlier in the day—the Group B table has Russia on top with 17 points; Ireland behind, on 15 points; and right behind both of them, Armenia, sitting on 14. There are only two more matches in the group, on Oct. 7 and 11, with Armenia playing Macedonia and Ireland, respectively. This group is now up for grabs. Any country can win it. And with winless Andorra having to play Ireland and Russia in their final two games in the group, they could play a major part in deciding which countries advance and which go home.
Get ready for some serious drama folks!