BY ANTRANIG DEREYAN
From the Armenian Weekly
YEREVAN—No soccer expert would have predicted that halfway through the qualification campaign for the 2012 European Cup, Armenia would be one of the top teams fighting for a place. But as the sun set over the country on March 26, inside the Republican Stadium in Yerevan, the country found itself a victory away from first place in their group.
Standing in Armenia’s way was current group leader Russia, which had crushed Armenia twice during the 2000 Euro Cup qualification stage, in the only meetings of the two countries since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As they sung the Armenian national anthem, the crowd held up different colored boards which, when seen from above, made up the colors of the flag. Hanging in the center was an over-sized red Armenia home jersey with the number 12 on it, representing the people’s faith that their team would qualify for their first major soccer tournament since gaining independence in1991.
Once the festivities and anthems were out of the way, it was time for business, and Armenia came out the stronger of the two teams, attacking from all sides.
In the first 20 minutes, Armenia created numerous chances, constantly keeping Russia’s goalkeeper Vyaceslav Malafeev on his guard. Unfortunately, no goals were scored. Forwards Gevorg Ghazaryan, Yura Movsisyan, and Marcos Pizzelli all took their chances at glory and were aided from the mid-field by Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who did his best to feed his strikers and, when clear, go in on goal himself.
At the 25th minute mark, Russia woke up and started locking down the center of the field, not allowing Armenia any room to attack, while at the same time pressuring Armenia’s back four and barraging their net, putting goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky to immediate work. Led by forward and captain Andrei Arshavin and defenseman Yuri Zhirkov, each shot taken came closer to hitting the back of Armenia’s net than the previous shot.
For the entirety of the half that remained, Armenia was pinned in their defending zone, frantically trying to clear the ball behind their net. A succession of Russian corner kicks that followed Armenia’s clearing attempts silenced the crowd with worry, but the players didn’t give up hope and didn’t forget their game plan. For each kick hit in their box, Armenia’s captain and center of defense Sargis Hovsepyan kept the troops calm and concentrated on the task in hand.
As a result, the first half ended 0-0.
The second half was a completely different story. As Russia tried to continue their onward march to goal, they left holes in their defense allowing Armenia’s mid-fielder Karen Mkrtchyan to intercept the ball and transition to attack mode.
With the score still tied going into the 75th minute and both teams making substitutions, Armenia’s substitute Edgar Manucharyan, introduced in the 66th minute, got a pass to go clear to goal. Standing just outside the 18-yard box, he sent a perfect shot heading to goal. The crowd was on its feet in anticipation as the ball flew through the air, but no one noticed the linesman with his flag up signaling offside, and Manucharyan received a yellow card for shooting the ball after the whistle had blown.
Now in the 80th minute, Russia held the ball in their zone to set up another rush up the field. Russian defenseman Roman Shirokov took his time in passing the ball up to the mid-field, allowing Pizzelli to beat Russian substitute striker Pavel Pogrebnyak to the ball at the center line and run the opposite way.
A quick pass to Mkhitaryan led Armenia into the six-yard box with Movsisyan open across the goal mouth. Keeping the ball on the ground, Movsisyan found himself with the ball off a beautiful pass from Mkhitaryan, only needing to go around the goalkeeper to score and put Armenia in prime position for the win. As Berezovsky went for the dive to smother the ball, Movsisyan kept the ball securely on his right foot with nothing stopping him from dropping the ball into the back of the gaping net. However, Movsisyan’s angle wasn’t straight to goal. He needed not only to bend the ball, but keep his balance in the process. His body twisting and Russian defenders behind him, he kicked the ball to the inner side corner and grazed the side goal netting.
Not being able to capitalize on their best goal scoring chance of the match, Armenia had to settle for a final score of 0-0.
Armenia played well and deserved to win, but came up just short, not taking advantage of the opportunities Russia lay in front of them.
With the Republic of Ireland and Slovakia winning their group matches and both Russia and Armenia gaining one point, Ireland, Slovakia, and Russia lead the group with 11 points, while Armenia is behind them with 9.
On June 4, Armenia will again play Russia, and a victory could propel them to first place with only three games remaining. A loss, on the other hand, would almost certainly ruin Armenia’s chances for qualification.