Tuesday 27 June 2017

The dream lives on as lady luck saves Irish

Ireland 2
Armenia 1

Kevin Doyle looks on as Valeri Aleksanyan puts the ball into the
net for Ireland's first goal
Kevin Doyle looks on as Valeri Aleksanyan puts the ball into the net for Ireland's first goal
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

A cruel kind of glory. Giovanni Trapattoni's men progress to the play-offs, but this was a story of Armenian tragedy rather than Irish ascendancy.

The Armenians will talk of Dublin just like grizzled veterans in these parts speak of injustices in Heysel and Sofia and tales of refereeing crimes which denied a small country a first chance to taste a major tournament.

Instead, it is Ireland who march on with the added boost of being seeded in tomorrow's draw. One of Turkey, Estonia, Bosnia and Montenegro will stand in the way of progression to the finals in Poland & Ukraine.

This encounter turned on the 26th-minute dismissal of Armenian 'keeper Roman Berezovsky, who raised his arms when he emerged from his area to block a Simon Cox shot.

Replays delivered a double blow for the visitors. Cox handled the ball first and it was inconclusive if the ball had touched the arm of the onrushing netminder.

To add insult to injury, the Armenians delivered a comical own goal to send Ireland on their way, with Trapattoni acknowledging afterwards that his opponents had emerged looking like a better side.

However, he stopped short of admitting that his charges were lucky, even if Ireland toiled for periods against 10 men and endured nervy moments when Kevin Doyle was sent off late in the second half.

Trapattoni deals in the business of results and, this morning, the 72-year-old is closer to a new contract, even if large question marks remain.

"They played well," he said, of Armenia, "and had plenty of possession.

"But I don't remember the difficult moments for Shay Given. We were lucky in Russia, yes, but this evening I don't remember this."

If Ireland had lost in such a manner, they would be calling for a replay.

Instead, the emotional Armenian coach, Vardan Minasyan, delivered a brief address wishing Ireland good luck in the play-offs and stressing how proud he was of his team.

Armenia kept the ball well and passed with more assurance. Ireland relied on the aerial approach. Aiden McGeady, so impressive on Friday, was anonymous for the opening quarter, with red shirts swarming around. The experience of Damien Duff again came to the fore.

Doyle's physicality troubled the Armenians. With midfield bypassed, Cox meandered to pick up the pieces. Early on, it almost paid off, with Cox finding space and, while struggling to get a shot away, displayed composure to tee up the inrushing Doyle, who fired straight at Berezovsky.

In general play, it was Armenia dictating. Trapattoni will point out they created little, although a piercing Marcos Pizelli through-ball could have caused trouble only for the maturity of Shay Given, who stayed on his feet and ushered Yura Movsisyan out of play; a younger 'keeper might have gone to ground and paid the penalty.

Punishment

But this was an evening for Armenian punishment. The key moment followed when Glenn Whelan, who started well, intercepted and punted the ball over the top in the same motion.

Cox judged the flight better than his three pursuers, yet clearly brought the missile to ground using his arm. Rashly, Berezovsky raced from his line to block the striker's effort with his armpit, although several replays were required to establish any kind of clarity.

Referee Eduardo Iturralde Gonzalez had no such luxury and was harassed by a posse of green shirts. The veteran of three El Clasicos looked to his linesman before dishing out a red card. Harsh on two counts.

The biggest international football crowd at the renovated Lansdowne Road rejoiced. Justice, some said, for the events in Paris, although it was eerily similar in the sense that the victims were the team from lower down the food chain.

Armenia brought on 20-year-old debutant Arsen Petrosyan and, manfully, continued to ping the ball around. Eventually, though, the weight of numbers told, but only with another large dollop of fortune.

Again, Duff's swiftness of thought was crucial, his first-time cross outfoxing the opposition. Doyle tried to cheekily convert with a backheel and would have taken serious flak only for the covering Valeri Aleksanyan to inexplicably steer into his own goal.

Ireland resumed with 15 minutes of genuine conviction. Whelan and Keith Andrews enjoyed space to instigate good passages and the latter threatened in a period where Cox and the marauding Stephen Kelly also had opportunities.

McGeady, switched to the right, finally became effective, and a trademark piece of trickery created what appeared to be the insurance goal. The Spartak Moscow winger's cross found the Armenians in a slumber with sub 'keeper Petrosyan tamely allowing Dunne to bundle the ball across the line.

Celebration time? The fans thought so, and their team obviously got caught up in it. However, Gevorg Ghazaryan and Movsisyan adroitly combined and the impressive Henrikh Mkitaryan unleashed with a strike that Given perhaps could have handled better.

The game was back on and Irish nerves took hold. Armenia pressed so high up the park that the backtracking Doyle was guilty of a wild challenge that ruled him out of the first play-off game. Minasyan's youthful troops continued to probe so Trapattoni withdrew McGeady and the injured Whelan, bringing on Stephen Hunt and Keith Fahey. The volume levels dropped as nails were bitten.

Just as Jonathan Walters was sent on for Cox, Doyle led with his elbow in an aerial challenge with Karlen Mkrtchyan and Gonzalez reached for a second yellow. Human parity restored. Ten long minutes remained.

Walters was immense, making a compelling case for inclusion in November with a deeply impressive cameo that relieved pressure.

Armenia required two goals to grab the runners-up spot and, as injury-time approached, the hope visibly drained from their bodies.

The Irish crowd recovered theirs, and rose in unison at the final whistle. A repeat showing from the stands will be essential next month and so, too, will a better performance from the players.

Still, the dream lives on.

Irish Independent

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