Sunday 23 April 2017

Distinct clash of styles creates conditions for tense final act

Armenia's ability to counter-attack will make them tricky opponents this week, writes Dion Fanning

Dion Fanning

So it comes down to Armenia. If Armenia lose in Dublin on Tuesday, Ireland will be the only side in the group not to drop points against a team that has surprised everyone.

Armenia began the campaign with those who knew them well saying they lacked a goalscorer. They have now scored 21 goals in the group, more than any other side and they have found three goalscorers. Gevorg Ghazaryan and Shakthar Donetsk's Henrik Mkhittaryan have scored five each, Yura Movsisyan has four.

The three are part of the new wave of players introduced over the past campaign but who have now made qualification or a play-off a possibility in this one. In recent years, Armenia have held teams like Portugal and beaten Belgium. Yet they finished bottom of their qualifying group two years ago. Few expected them to move so quickly.

Vardan Minasyan, their coach, took over with some questioning his credentials but the victory in Slovakia and Armenia's general play has brought an end to those questions. Minasyan played 11 times for Armenia but some felt he had been over-promoted when he got the national job at the age of 35.

Minasyan is now insisting it won't be a failure if Armenia don't qualify which is a further example of how far they've come. Dublin is a different test but it's a test for Ireland too.

"I think we're finding it hard to get over Lansdowne Road and I never played there," Stephen Hunt said as he looked forward to a game which is the biggest yet at the Aviva.

"The atmosphere always seemed electric for most games at Lansdowne. And, let's be honest, we've had fans in Croke Park, but we've never had a major game bar the Russia one in the Aviva. Russia are a big team but they're not as glamorous."

Armenia aren't glamorous either and while the game isn't sold out and kicks off at the awkward time of 6.45, the possibility of a play-off might create the atmosphere Hunt craves. "To get the atmosphere back, you need magic moments," Hunt says. Ireland's style doesn't encourage them but the endgame creates its own momentum. Armenia's style might create the urgency.

Ireland managed to keep a clean sheet in Yerevan but, while it wasn't a siege like Moscow, Armenia's pace stretched the team at times.

Yet as the group has gone on that result has become more and more important. Slovakia were beaten home and away by Armenia. Their 4-0 defeat in Zilina was one of the most startling across Europe on the night but the Armenians weren't surprised. Apart from that opening-round defeat in Yerevan, Armenia lost only in Moscow, going down 3-1 so there is no question of Ireland being casual. Armenia are a side built for counter-attack so Trapattoni might counter this by not attacking.

More significant will be how Armenia handle the pressure. Hunt experienced a similar day at the end of last season when Wolves went into the final game of the season in danger of relegation.

The day didn't go Wolves' way in one sense -- Blackburn beat them 3-2 -- but they stayed up. Hunt scored a crucial late goal which moved Wolves out of the relegation zone.

"I know I have it in me. I know I haven't had any goals for Ireland, so I think I'm due one, a big goal maybe. I think it will probably be similar to Wolves either way, because there will be pressure to win, to get to the play-offs. It will be nerve-wracking anyway. I had a feeling for Wolves last year, and I said it to the boys that I'd score the winning goal that would keep us up. And I don't know what it was, but it could happen again."

Hunt actually scored the losing goal that kept Wolves up but Ireland's task is different. He is one of the players who has grown over the years. He has experience but he hasn't experienced a major tournament.

With his hair cut short -- "a new direction," he says -- he is looking to become a figure of authority, although that doesn't seem likely. He had a new neighbour round for dinner last week. Shane Long is now living in England's midlands and Hunt looked after him, in his own fashion. "He's bought a house 200 yards from me so I'm looking to move out."

Hunt is desperate for his chance, against a team that he insists Ireland can't underestimate. It's not just convention which tells him that.

"Someone's going to become a hero in the next few days," Hunt says. "In all the groups there will be someone who will get a goal that will make a team qualify for the play-offs. And hopefully it can be me."

The Armenians think they have a team full of heroes too.

Sunday Indo Sport

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