Special for the Armenian Weekly
For an international soccer fan, the winter break of any qualifying campaign can seem like an eternity. For the teams and players, a four and a half month hiatus from international action can serve as an unwelcome disruption to a team in form, or a purgatorial nightmare for a team looking to turn its fortunes around. For the later, teams are left to dwell on the last round of fixtures and to stare at group standings that are frozen in time through the winter months.
Armenia’s campaign began poorly with a one goal loss away to Denmark. Denmark commanded the lion’s share of possession, territory and chances, including a missed penalty kick. For all their dominance, however, Denmark were very nearly robbed at the death by a typically incisive and dynamic smash and grab counter attack by Armenia. It was disappointing not to come away with the point that Armenia had so obviously set themselves up to achieve, but on the balance of the match, it would have been scarcely deserved.
Next up for Armenia was a disastrous home result versus Romania. Fans arriving late to their seats were greeted with the news of an early Romanian penalty kick and a red card shown to Gor Malakyan for handling on the line. What transpired was a heavy 5-0 loss in which the Armenian defense were punished for their lack luster approach and complacency. Although the early red card most likely disrupted any game plan Armenia were looking to execute, things went wrong in every area of the pitch and there was nothing of significance to redeem an uncharacteristically poor effort.
If confidence was low in the Armenian ranks, it was quickly put aside. Three days later the team traveled to Poland for another tough away assignment. Employing similar tactics to those of the Denmark match, Armenia succeeded for the most part in maintaining a solid rear guard against a potent Polish strike force. Entering the final stages all-square at a goal apiece, it was Armenia who looked more likely to nick a winner on the counter attack as an increasingly desperate Polish outfit committed extra players to attack leaving space in behind. Aras Özbiliz missed a guilt-edged opportunity late-on to claim all of the spoils, a chance that Armenia and manager Varuzhan Sukiasyan were left to rue. Robert Lewondowski nodded in the winner at the other end deep into stoppage time, a killer blow that left the Armenian players strewn across the turf drenched in an unpalatable cocktail of exhaustion, disbelief and disappointment. Varuzhan Sukiasyan was shown the door soon afterwards.
One month later, at home to Montenegro and less that forty minutes into the tenure of new manager Artur Petrosyan, it looked like more of the same from Armenia. The sense of optimism and energy that comes part and parcel with a new era of management could not be parlayed into a good performance on the pitch. The team entered the break deflated, despondent and two goals in arrears, an all too familiar feeling in recent times. Armenia’s fortunes were about to change, however. The second half saw the rub of the green fall Armenia’s way for once. An industrious run by Artak Grigoryan from midfield was rewarded with a goal by way of a fortuitous ricochet off the Montenegrin goalkeeper. This was the catalyst for a great comeback as Varazdat Haroyan scored the equalizer soon after. Gevorg Ghazaryan provided the grandstand finish and became the hero on the night, riffling in the winner from distance as time expired to secure an unlikely 3-2 victory and a winning start for the new manager.
Entering the winter break, Armenia were finally on the board in Group E, securing an improbable three points in dramatic fashion against a heavily favored opponent. Upon reflection, it was a tremendous victory that was sorely needed, but do those three points simply paper over the cracks of a flawed team? Armenia’s inability to keep a clean sheet in recent competitive matches is a concern and will always be an inhibiting factor in establishing a run of consistent results. The inability to keep opponents from scoring raises the stakes at the other end. The added pressure players experience in the final third leads to poor decision making, shots off-target, missed chances and lost points. Plugging a leaky defense and fostering an environment where players can play with confidence again will be Artur Petrosyan’s biggest challenge. Not an easy task, but using the victory and particularly the second half performance as a platform, Petrosyan can continue to turns things around.
Kazakhstan will be the next visitors to Yerevan as Armenia’s campaign picks back up on Mar 26. Although qualification through a second place berth in the group will be difficult, taking care of business at home against Kazakhstan is an important step towards that ultimate goal. The Kazakh team possess the same giant killing trait as Armenia. With two potential giant killers in the group, points will be lost by every team, and when least expected. This campaign has already shown a capacity to surprise. Something worth noting is Kazakhstan’s artificial turf home pitch. Poland and Romania have already dropped points in Astana due to that unpredictable X factor and that bodes well for others in Group E and Armenia in particular as they look to dig themselves out of the latest qualifying hole they find themselves in.