Armenia’s Euro 2012 qualifying group (Group B) produced 2 of the eventual 16 finalists. Russia and Ireland earned their way to the finals with Armenia narrowly missing out with a 3rdplace finish in the group.
The playing styles that earned Russia and Ireland their passage to the finals were very different. The fast counter-attacking style of the Russians with their intricate passing and movement through midfield couldn’t be any further from the Irish. The systematic, defensively drilled Irish, who bypass their midfielders with long balls in the hope of regaining possession in the attacking third, employed a safety first policy that had seen them maintain an excellent defensive record in qualifying rounds.
Regardless of style, both teams did enough in qualifying to earn their place at the top table of international soccer, and with it a chance to showcase their talents in front of millions of fans across the globe. Unfortunately, both teams failed to do themselves justice and exited the tournament in the first round.
Russia’s exit was somewhat of a surprise. In their opening match, Russia steamrolled their way to an impressive 4-1 victory over the Czech Republic and put themselves in pole position for a quarter final berth. Their following match versus tournament co-host Poland was a tense affair. Clashes between rival fans before the match added fuel to the proceedings on the pitch as the troubled history between the two nations threatened to boil over. That match ended in a draw following a spectacularly emotional equalizer from Polish captain Jakub Błaszczykowski which ignited the home crowd and kept Poland alive in the tournament, for one more match at least.
The final match in the group pitted Russia against 2004 champions Greece, a recent opponent of Armenia. Greece entered the match needing a victory; a draw would have seen Russia through. Against the odds, Greece inflicted a 1-0 loss on the Russians through a nice strike from Georgios Karagounis and thus consigned them to an early flight home. Greece and Czech Republic advance to the quarters from Group A; the latter being the first team to top a European Championship group with a negative goal difference. Russia makes a surprising early exit along with the gallant Polish side.
As for the Irish, their tournament was far from stellar. Joined in Group C by Spain, Italy, and Croatia, it was always going to be a tough assignment to get out of the group. However, the Irish didn’t cover themselves in any sort of glory; to the contrary they could be described as the worst performers in this year’s tournament and suffered the indignity of being the first team eliminated, failing to keep their hopes alive into the final group game with Italy, after heavy defeats to Croatia and Spain.
The Irish completed the trifecta of losses with a 2-0 reverse at the hands of Italy. A few nervous moments at the end of that game were endured by the Italians as they awaited word from Gdańsk but the news was music to their ears. Spain’s 1-0 defeat of Croatia sent Croatia home and sparked wild celebrations in Poznań as the Italians squeaked through to the quarter finals.
The Irish were one goal shy of the worst ever performance in the tournament’s history. Zero points, one goal scored, and an embarrassing nine goals conceded by a team that prided itself on its defensive record is tough to swallow for anyone supporting the Boys in Green. But how does that make Armenian fans feel?
Look back to France’s debacle in South Africa at the World Cup of 2010. There was many an Irish media pundit and fan who felt France squandered the World Cup berth they controversially took from Ireland with Henry’s infamous handball in Paris. Exiting in the first round of the tournament coupled with infighting between management and the squad that escalated to post-tournament bans for players from the French football federation was nothing short of a calamitous failure from Les Bleus. The Irish fans and media were telling anyone who’d listen—surely Ireland would have done better than France and done justice to the opportunity to compete on the world stage.
From an Armenian point of view the contentious sending off of Roman Berezovsky in Armenia’s final qualifier versus Ireland that helped deprive them of a playoff spot was met with similar discontent and disapproval from the media, neutrals, and Armenian supporters alike. Discussing the incident and the match with Irish fans, many of them concede that Armenia was the better side on the night, played the better football, and was unlucky not to advance.
After Ireland’s poor tournament, characterized by a rigid use of a one dimensional-long ball tactic, punctuated by mental lapses exposing defensive frailties that were gleefully exploited by superior teams playing an imaginative expansive brand of soccer, one could say the same thing—surely Armenia would have been better than Ireland.
Harsh as it may sound, the Irish contributed nothing to the tournament from a soccer standpoint. As some feared they would, once the draw was made with Spain, Italy, and Croatia, Ireland simply made up the numbers. The media spent more time praising the overwhelming support the Irish team received from an army of traveling fans rather than the product on the pitch. That must sting just a little for Armenia fans.
After all, the brand of football Coach Minasyan has been promoting in the Armenian team is a possession-oriented, attractive attacking style. It is a style that is modeled after club teams such as Arsenal, Barcelona, and the Spanish national team. Who wouldn’t want to see that at the Euros as opposed to the frustrating boot and chase tactics of the Irish?
When executed correctly, it is a winning style. With a certain standard of player, teams do not have to compromise tactically to achieve results because with possession of the ball, teams will always pose a threat of scoring. Both Armenia and Ireland contain talented players; the difference is Coach Minasyan trusts his players to use their talents, whereas Irish Coach Trapattoni seemingly does not.
There will always be room for teams employing a defensive style, just look to Chelsea’s success in this season’s Champions League or Greece’s Euro win in 2004. It is a style that may not be celebrated but still should be appreciated. However, if a team sets out its stall to be defensive as Ireland did and proceeds to capitulate to a negative eight-goal difference in three games, perhaps there could have been a better suitor for the trip to Poland and Ukraine, and particularly from qualifying Group B.