Saturday 24 March 2018

Losing this one would be ultimate humiliation

Ireland should have no reason to be wary of Armenia, writes Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Let's get it straight about Armenia. In their 4-1 win against Macedonia on Friday night, our opponents on Tuesday featured five players from their domestic league. The Armenian League is rated 50th in Europe by UEFA, 17 places behind the League of Ireland.

Only the leagues of Andorra, the Faroe Islands and San Marino rank lower.

There are two players on the Armenian team from Khimki, which last year finished 13th in the Russian First Division. This is not the top flight, Russia has a Premier League. Ural Sverdlosk Oblast, Krasnodar and Shinnik Yaroslavl, who contribute players to the team, also toil on the second rung of Russian football. There are a couple of players from Metalurh Donetsk, currently lying eighth in the Ukrainian Premier League. Defender Levon Hayrapatyan plies his trade with mighty Lechia Gdansk, currently tenth in the Polish Premier League.

The one player at a big club is Henrik Mrkhitaryan, a midfielder who's made 26 appearances over the past couple of seasons for Shakhtar Donetsk. In the qualifying campaign for the 2010 World Cup, Armenia finished bottom of their group with four points from ten matches. When the draw was made for Euro 2012, they were ranked 45th out of 53 teams in Europe, between Iceland and Kazakhstan. In the last decade they have gone through 11 managers.

This is the team then whose visit to the Aviva Stadium on Tuesday is being greeted with so much trepidation.

Ireland need only a point to make the play-offs. Armenia need a win because, incredibly, for the first time in the country's football history they have come within an ass's roar of qualification.

And fair play to them for doing so. We know what it's like to be the minnows and we'd have a good idea of the excitement gripping the folk of Yerevan, Gyumri and Kapan as they catch a glimpse of uncharted territory for the first time.

But the stark truth is that it says a lot about the piss-poor standard of European Championship qualifying Group B that Armenia are still in there with a shot on the last day. And it says even more about the good fortune that Ireland have enjoyed that we merely need a draw against them to qualify after a campaign which saw us take three points out of a possible 12 against our perceived main rivals, Slovakia and Russia.

Before the competition began, you'd have imagined that such a haul would have doomed us to irrelevance. What you wouldn't have imagined is that people would be worrying about our prospects of earning a draw at home to Armenia, a 'gimme' if ever there was one under normal circumstances.

If Ireland lose to the ancestral homeland of Cher, Charles Aznavour and Kim Kardashian at the Aviva Stadium, it will be, given everything that's at stake, the most humiliating defeat in the history of soccer in this country. By some distance. Because more than half of the team we'll be facing play their club football at a level which is roughly equal to or lower than that of the League of Ireland.

Yet such is the pessimism surrounding Trapattoni's team that Armenia are being touted as a serious challenge to an Irish side which appears to have an addiction to making life hard for itself. Chances are, however, that we will clamber over the obstacle which is Armenia and make the play-offs where the argument over whether Trap is saviour or stooge will finally be resolved one way or the other. If all goes well, we could get Montenegro; if our luck finally runs out, it might be Croatia.

But first we need a draw against Armenia. A draw against Armenia for God's sake. You've heard of the Group of Death. Turns out we've been playing in the Group of Life.

Sunday Indo Sport

Sport Newsletter

The best sport action straight to your inbox every morning.

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport