Monday 19 February 2018

Fahey strike gets Ireland out of sticky situation

Armenia 0 Ireland 1

Ireland match-winner Keith Fahey celebrates
at the end of the game against Armenia in
Yerevan yesterday. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Ireland match-winner Keith Fahey celebrates at the end of the game against Armenia in Yerevan yesterday. Photo: David Maher / Sportsfile
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

THE method may have been one-dimensional, but the purpose of this mission was the gathering of three points. As they say in football parlance, job done.

Ireland made hard work of it, though, with a combination of sticky, sapping heat, a vibrant Armenian side and, perhaps, a bit of rustiness from some under-worked individuals at club level making for a difficult evening.

In the past, however, this is the kind of encounter where the Irish would happily have shuffled home with a point. Take Montenegro two years ago, for example.

However, in their first competitive outing since Paris, it was an individual who doesn't have the memories of that fateful night who popped up to make this opening Euro 2012 journey a genuine success, with substitute Keith Fahey marking his first meaningful game at this level with a precious 76th-minute strike.

The Irish had withstood a storm in a worrying spell in the second half before the Birmingham man was thrust into action. Indeed, part of his brief was to help Kevin Kilbane in the defensive effort. Alas, his real impact was at the right end, although Giovanni Trapattoni later conceded that a draw would have been a fairer result.

He won't lose sleep over that, you suspect. Having extolled the virtues of results outranking performances, and the merits of a 1-0 victory in the preliminaries, Il Capo cut a contented figure in the aftermath.

"I think it will not be easy for the other teams who come here in the group," said Trapattoni, surmising that Russia and Slovakia will find it hard in Yerevan.

"I said before it wouldn't be easy for two reasons. Firstly, that psychologically, the weather was very hot. And also, some of our players have only been involved in one or two games of pre-season before tonight. It turned out to be a very difficult game."

Nevertheless, from the outset it was apparent that the Armenians, for all their energy, were vulnerable the closer they got towards their own goal. "Fast, but not big," as Trapattoni had suggested.

Ireland should have been ahead from a traditional route-one move inside the eighth minute. Kevin Doyle's salmon leaps provided an opportunity to plunder, and a long Shay Given punt found the Wexford man, who parted the Armenian centre-halves with a header that Robbie Keane, with just goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky to beat, took first time. Inches wide.

Encouraging signs, though, and Keane had a penalty shout waved away seconds later when his shirt seemed to be pulled by Robert Arzumanyan as they watched a John O'Shea delivery.

However, a tame spell followed, with Paul Green enduring a turbulent start in the centre of the midfield, perhaps realising that international football is about more than friendly games in Dublin. Armenia, with their quick frees and pressing, were keen to lift the tempo. Green dawdled on two occasions and the Irish might have been punished if Levon Pachajyan had relaxed rather than shooting on sight with men over.

"Sure, he was a bit nervous, there was a lot of pressure on him," admitted Trapattoni about Green. "But I think he recovered and was one of our best in the second half."

The hosts were lined out in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with lone striker Yuri Movsisyan, a recent convert to their cause, lively as he attempted to pull the Irish out of shape. The stadium was only around two-thirds full, but when the red shirts launched a counter-attack the volume levels soared. Richard Dunne had plenty of marshalling to do.

But, the Armenian rearguard failed to convince, particularly under aerial bombardment and Ireland forced a series of free kicks and corners where Berezovsky failed to command his area with any great authority. He was backtracking as he managed to parry a Sean St Ledger header off the line from an Aiden McGeady corner.

The latter was quiet in the early exchanges before a dazzling run short of the half-hour mark, which left 37-year-old right-back Sargis Hopsepyan in a spin. Yet after doing the hard work, McGeady dragged his shot off target.

Certainly, it was frenetic at times, with neither side able to enjoy concerted spells of possession. The Armenians excited the locals with further shots from distance with Movsisyan, and young Edgar Malakyan converting points rather than goals. With momentum swinging either way, Keane had a goal disallowed for offside, before an Irish break culminated with Glenn Whelan driving the ball outside the post with Berezovsky beaten. Half-time loomed.

With a bit more composure, Ireland could have been in better shape, and it was that very commodity they needed in a torrid stint following the resumption. Much as the Armenians were rushing into tackles and conceding needless frees, they also knocked the green shirts out of their rhythm.

Indeed, they could have gone ahead before the hour mark in a frenetic scramble, with home attackers queueing up to fluff their lines. Malakyan and Henrikh Mkhitaryan were particularly culpable, with Kilbane getting his body in front of the latter's tame attempt.

Mkhitaryan stung Given's fingers after another surging run in a spell where even Dunne was perturbed -- the Aston Villa man came dangerously close to breaking the deadlock in the wrong goal, with Given saving his blushes.

You could never quite say the Armenians were in control, though, with the two men at the heart of their defence miles apart from routine Irish balls forward. Keane was expertly wandering into the vacuum and should have capitalised when another punt navigated itself to the skipper who scuffed a left-foot effort against the post.

Doyle, gradually developing into the game's outstanding performer, then mustered up the energy to embark on a purposeful solo run that included a range of skills and concluded with a thunderbolt that Berezovsky palmed to safety.

There was a naivety about the Armenians that provided encouragement as full-time approached, and they were finally punished. In a familiar theme, Keane collected a Liam Lawrence loft, yet he struggled to keep his balance as he turned inside his man. Doyle bundled in with his presence and the scraps fell to Fahey, eight minutes into his competitive debut as a sub for McGeady, who clinically swept the right-foot strike into the bottom corner.

Sighs of relief on the Irish bench although they didn't have much time to catch a breath in the 14 minutes that followed. A knackered Keane was replaced by Andy Keogh as Ireland battened down the hatches. St Ledger and Dunne made timely headers, O'Shea squeezed the life from a menacing break and Lawrence got involved by getting his body in the way during another frantic scramble. On this evening, there would be no late concession.

Armenia -- Berezovski, Hovsepyan, Arzumanyan, Arakelyan, Artak Edigaryan (Hambardzumyan 71); Artur Edigaryan (Manoyan 67), Mkrtchyan; Pachajyan, Mkhitaryan, Malakyan (Manucharyan 78); Movsisyan.

Ireland -- Given, O'Shea, Dunne, St Ledger, Kilbane; Lawrence, Whelan, Green, McGeady (Fahey 68); Keane (Keogh 83), Doyle.

Ref -- Zsolt Szabo (Hungary)

Irish Independent

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