Fearless Armenia transformed from side beaten in Yerevan
ONE more step to clinch a Euro 2012 qualifier play-off for Giovanni Trapattoni's men, but who would have believed that little Armenia would arrive with confidence high and neutral observers tipping them to shock us in Dublin?
Four goals scored against Macedonia last Friday, and four against Slovakia away in September, have bought one of Europe's minnows some serious street cred.
So should the fans who will throng the Aviva Stadium tonight get the worry beads out?
Not if the Irish players perform to their capabilities, says former international striker Frank Stapleton, who has twice scouted Armenia for Trapattoni.
Stapleton first viewed Armenia v Uzbekistan (3-1) in a friendly back in May 2010 before the qualifying series began, and he saw them in Lithuania last August, when they won 3-0.
"They've got a decent work ethic and with the results they've achieved, they demand respect," he said.
"They're not a big physical team. Obviously they're playing with the most confidence they've ever had and this is the best run in their history.
"I would expect us to win but it won't be comfortable because we'll never make it comfortable for ourselves.
"We've got to go out and play to our capabilities and keep our cool. That's the strength of the manager. He'll calm the players and will be very positive in what he wants from them."
ARMENIA gained its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991 and a year later its football federation came into existence.
History was made when they played their first international on October 14, 1992 against Moldova.
Their first venture into an international tournament was in 1994 away to Belgium -- lost 2-0 -- when Armenia opened their qualifying campaign for Euro '96. In September 1995, Macedonia were the first country Armenia defeated in competitive football.
Since then they have settled in as part of the international football family in UEFA and FIFA qualifiers without achieving the holy grail of reaching a major finals.
They have eight clubs playing in the Armenian Premier League, but their better players tend to operate mainly in Russia and the Ukraine.
Ian Porterfield, the former Sunderland star, managed the team from 2006-07. He is credited with improving the mindset of the international team. However, he died in '07 of cancer.
Present coach Vardan Minasyan was an assistant to Porterfield, and took charge of the senior side in '09. He is benefiting from the ongoing development of good talent at under-age level to bring Armenia to a new level.
THE Irish team went to Armenia in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier and escaped with a 1-0 victory, courtesy of a 76th-minute goal by Keith Fahey.
Since then, Minasyan has overhauled his team to the extent that only six of the players who started against Ireland in September of last year featured from the outset in their 4-1 win over Macedonia last Friday,
They were goalkeeper Roman Berezovski, defender and captain Sargus Hovsepyan, midfielders Karlen Mkrtchyan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Artur Edigaryan and striker Yura Moysisyan.
Striker Marcos Pizelli, who scored against Macedonia, was an unused sub in the game against Ireland.
Mkhitaryan (22) of Shakhtar Donetsk has since grown in stature and has scored five times in the campaign -- as has Gevorg Ghazaryan.
Another big threat comes from 24- year-old Moysisyan, who has notched up four goals from 10 appearances, having made his competitive debut against Ireland in Yerevan.
ANY team that can hammer Slovakia 4-0 away and get another four against Macedonia must be respected, it's really all about the Irish players and their approach tonight.
The confidence which was clearly flowing through the players when they gathered in Dublin last week should only be enhanced by the win in Andorra.
Yes, it was only 2-0, but Russia didn't do any better in the tiny principality in the Pyrenees.
And before we make too much of Armenia, let's realise they caught Slovakia on the hop, with the Slovaks over-confident after emerging from Dublin with a hard-fought draw.
It should be noted that Macedonia are in the early stages of new management under John Toshack, and they had nothing to play for last Friday.
Toshack doesn't have much time to get to know his players and his selection options, so that was a ripe opportunity for Armenia.
Credit to Armenia for justifying the respect they gained from the Irish players after that 1-0 win back in September 2010, but they need to be put firmly in their place at the Aviva Stadium tonight.
Three points please, and let's march into the play-offs with heads held high.