Saturday 16 December 2017

No home comforts for Armenia

David Kelly in Yerevan

It wouldn't happen at the Aviva.

We have just finished speaking to the Armenian football manager, whose charming, albeit straight-laced, discourse is at least significantly more lucid than the translations of his dubiously skilled interpreter.

We are about to exit the imposing Republic Stadium, a post World War II construction, face-lifted at the turn of the century, but still a remnant of the past, when one of the number suggests we have a wander and a gander at the dressing-rooms.

We tramp unchecked into the visitors' dressing-room, where an incongruous collection of executive-style black leather chairs front on to every changing cubicle; if Giovanni Trapattoni's players really do mean business, the atmosphere is certainly conducive.

Two physio tables reside in an ante-room. However, unlike the lavish home dressing-rooms in Irish soccer's new Dublin 4 headquarters, there are no plunge pools or ice baths, merely showers and a small bath.

A blackboard in the corner of the dressing-room may offer a glimpse of pre-match tactics, but the written formation is an easily detected dud. Given is in goal, sure enough, but Anto and Deco in midfield?

An earlier interloper is at fault.

The Armenians are enchantingly naïve in their approach to the visitors; the combined genius of the CIA and M15 would struggle to even get within a corner-kick of the Irish dressing-rooms a day before an important qualifier match, while heaven forbid should one of the players mistakenly mingle with normal people in the build-up to a big match.

For all the Armenians' homeliness, this evening's clash will probably only attract 10,000 or so of a 17,000 capacity, even though ticket prices have been slashed by half, with the dearest tickets now €6 -- €4 will get you a berth in the cheaper stalls.

If these lot can't put bums on seats, what hope have the FAI in their new home.

A penny for FAI chief executive John Delaney's thoughts as he ponders life after the departure of finance director Mark O'Leary.

Vardan Minasyan, the Armenian manager, in what is effectively his third stint at the helm, is about half the age of his opposite number, Trapattoni.

What he cedes in terms of managerial experience will be mirrored on the field of play, even though their inexperienced superstar, Shakhtar Donetsk's €7m signing Henrikh Mkhitaryan is currently more coveted than Ireland's talismanic record goalscorer, Robbie Keane.

Armenia managed to bloody the noses of all four of their higher-seeded opponents during their last qualifying campaign; their caricature as occasional irritants has the potential to upset Ireland at the first hurdle.


Eager not to divulge any tactical secrets, Minasyan is also keen to deflect commonly held beliefs that any number of factors -- heat, Irish rustiness -- can stymie the visitors.

"The heat is not really an advantage at this level," he asserts, despite the mercury's charge beyond 100 degrees Fahrenheit, mocking the whirring futility of the air conditioning system.

"Any team who plays at international level can cope with all conditions.

"And as this match will be played in the evening -- 8.0 local time, when temperatures drop to a manageable, if still sultry early 20s centigrade -- then it shouldn't bother either team."

If Ireland can't stand the heat and all that...

"And I don't think it matters that players like Shay Given and Robbie Keane have not been playing regularly for their clubs," he continues. "Ireland have very strong players and they are all capable of playing a good game.

"For us to win, we need to be aggressive and close down the space.

"It will be interesting coming up against Trapattoni because he is a famous coach. He has been in the game for a lifetime, I am here only five or six years, so I have much distance to travel.

"He has made them a very aggressive team. I have watched their last two matches and I have not seen anything new. They are a great team. Every side has its strengths and weaknesses, but I don't like to talk about their weaknesses. Trapattoni does his work well and he definitely made Ireland more of a team."

Although eight of the U-21 stars who destroyed Ireland

4-1 here earlier this year are in Minasyan's squad, including the playmaking talents of the uber No 10 Mkhitaryan, the coach is eager to deflect any portents.

"Sure, a win like that will give us confidence, but I don't think that it has any relevance to this match," he says. "I don't think any of the Ireland U-21 players are in the Premier League, unlike the side we will see tomorrow."

Any element of spikiness from the coach came when criticisms of his playing style from his former managerial ally, Tom Jones, in yesterday's Irish Independent, are relayed to him.

"Well, you have to find a balance between attack and defence," he says.

Trapattoni would surely approve. "If you watch us play, you will see we don't defend all the time.

"We have a plan to win this match. We try to win every match. A win will give us a lot of confidence, like when we beat Belgium a year ago. But we know also a draw will be a good result."

In the event of such an unlikely occurrence, the Irish dressing-room would be the last place a person would want to visit.

Irish Independent

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