In their last international friendly match before World Cup qualifying begins next month, the Armenian national team was unable to deliver a home victory to an energetic and expectant crowd of just over 8,000 people at the Republican Stadium in Yerevan on Wed., Aug. 15. The result was disappointment to the Armenian players and coaching staff.
The team’s recent successes over their last qualifying campaign certainly increased expectations both within and outside the camp. Currently ranked 76 by FIFA, Belarus was ranked 36 a little over a year ago, and although a home loss to a Belarusian side may not be what the doctor ordered, looking beyond the result, a lot of positives can be taken from this performance.
A goal in each half from the Brazilian born midfielder Renan Bressan was enough to secure a surprise away victory for Belarus, with Bressan displaying a clinical touch in front of goal. Despite all their endeavor and creativity, Armenia only managed to breach the Belarus defense on one occasion, a 72nd-minute own goal from Dmitry Verkhovstov following good work from Aras Ozbiliz and Yura Movsisyan.
The result did not reflect the balance of possession and overall play in the match, in which Armenia dominated the statistics on shots and clear-cut chances. Ultimately, with the Armenian attack unable to produce the finishing product, it was sloppy defending and lapses of concentration at the back that put pay to Armenia’s chances in this one.
Armenia began brightly with the first chance of the game falling to Yura Movsisyan within two minutes. Henrikh Mkhitaryan slipped a pass through to Movsisyan, whose first touch left the ball slightly behind him. He recovered to send a snap shot just wide from 20 yards, but the chance was made that much more difficult due to his initial poor touch.
Marcos Pizzelli struck the woodwork on 11 minutes. Again it was Mkhitaryan who was the orchestrator as he found Pizzelli alone at the left edge of the 18-yard box. Cutting across the ball beautifully with his cultured left foot, he sent the shot tailing towards goal only for the ball to hit the far upright. The rebound fell to the feet of Pizzelli once again but his follow-up shot was blocked well.
Armenia continued its early pressure with Valeri Aleksanyan finding space in the box on a couple of half chances from set plays. On the 20-minute mark, Sarkis Hovsepyan ran 50 yards up the right flank unopposed. Rolling the ball square across the top of the 18-yard box, he found the feet of Movsisyan. The Krasnodar striker dropped off a short pass to the on-rushing Mkhitaryan, whose heavy first touch fortuitously found a way through to Gevorg Ghazaryan as it rolled past two defenders. Ghazaryan sent a thunderous right-footed strike towards goal from 12 yards only to see it saved and turned over spectacularly by the strong left hand of the Belarus goalkeeper Syarhey Veremko.
As the half progressed, Yura Movsisyan was doing well to hold up the ball (as any good target forward should do) and setup Armenia’s trade mark counter attacks. In the 25th minute, Ozbiliz and Movsisyan combined down the right wing. Movsisyan showed great patience as the defenders were streaming back. He picked out a trailing Mkhitaryan with a cut back pass to the top of the box. Mkhitaryan’s late run was timed to perfection as he met the ball with a one-time side-footed shot only to see his goal-bound effort blocked.
The first sign of danger from Belarus came in the 33rd minute. A 40-yard diagonal ball over Artak Edigaryan in the left back position was met by Pavel Nekhaychik. He controlled excellently on the chest but with the ball slightly beneath his feet he could only manage a weak shot from six yards, a shot that Roman Berezovsky in the Armenian goal dealt with comfortably. That was a warning sign for Armenia nonetheless.
Five minutes later Mkhitaryan sent a terrific slide rule pass in behind the Belarus defense. Ozbiliz came in off of the right flank to split two defenders and latch onto the through ball. From just outside the box he dragged his shot across goal and badly wide. He should have hit the target.
As the opening half was coming to a close, Belarus caught Armenia with a sucker punch. Having dominated for 45 minutes, Armenia found itself a goal behind against the run of play. Starting with its goalkeeper, Belarus worked a passing movement down the right wing before switching it to a free man on the left. The cross came at an awkward height for Aleksanyan, who only managed to deflect the ball to Renan Bressan who was waiting at the penalty spot. Hrayr Mkoyan failed to close the shot down quickly enough, slightly turning his back as he attempted a block. A precise side-footed shot around the defender caught Berezovsky unsighted and reacting late. Despite making a valiant effort, he was unable to prevent the ball from finding the net.
In first-half injury time Armenia crafted yet another good chance. Gevorg Ghazaryan picked up a bouncing cross in the box and, using the defender as a screen, curled his shot inches wide of the far post. That was yet another first half chance that went unconverted for Armenia as the team found itself making the turn an unlikely goal in arrears.
Right at the beginning of the second half, Belarus once again exploited Armenia’s weakness to the high ball over the fullbacks. This time Sarkis Hovsepyan was caught too high up the pitch and was left scampering back in recovery. A precise diagonal ball to the left corner found Anton Putilo, who controlled well before faking and delaying his shot a number of times. With defenders closing him down, he finally got off a tame effort from 12 yards that went into the grateful hands of Berezovsky.
After that early scare, Armenia set about continuing their dominance from the first half. Aras Ozbiliz was tormenting his marker regularly down the right flank, cutting in on one occasion to send a powerful drive over before later getting unceremoniously hacked from behind by Maxim Bordachev, who earned a yellow card for the challenge.
Halfway through the second half, Armenia was unlucky not to equalize. Henrikh Mkhitaryan picked up the ball in the outside-left position and skipped past two hapless defenders with ease before entering the box and getting a good shot away. His effort was parried by the replacement goalkeeper Zhevnov to the feet of Ghazaryan on the six-yard box. Ghazaryan’s follow up shot was blocked and the resultant rebound was sent skywards from three yards out as Movsisyan and Ghazaryan got in each other’s way. A bad miss for Armenia and within 30 seconds they were 2-0 down.
From the Belarus goal kick a long ball was flicked on to Renan Bressan, who had stolen a march on Aleksanyan to get in behind. Taking the ball on with two touches he fired across Berezovsky into the left-hand corner of the net. Yet again Armenia was guilty of switching off, perhaps ruing its chance that had gone a begging moments earlier.
It took Armenia six minutes to finally get a breakthrough in reply. In the 72nd minute a ball broke nicely to Ozbiliz at the edge of the area. He sent a powerful left-footed drive goal-ward, which was spilled by Zhevnov in goal once again. Yura Movsisyan was first to react to the ball and tried squaring to Gevorg Ghazaryan across the six-yard box. Dmitry Verkhovstov cut out the cross but only succeeded in poking the ball into his own net to get Armenia on the board with a goal they so desperately deserved.
Four minutes later Ghazaryan played a neat one-two pass with Movsisyan in the left channel. Closing in on goal his shot beat the keeper but rolled agonizingly past the far post. Marcos Pizzelli popped up in the 78th minute to send another curling left-footed shot towards goal. His strike from the right-hand corner of the 18-yard box seemed to have the keeper beaten all ends up, but failed to dip in time and went inches over the crossbar.
With just over 10 minutes remaining Gevorg Ghazaryan was the victim of a cynical scything challenge from behind from the own-goal scorer Dmitry Verkhovstov. The challenge was a bookable offense and forced Ghazaryan out of the game with an ankle injury, later being replaced by Artur Sarsikov after it became clear that sideline treatment would not get the Metallurg Donetsk man back on the pitch.
With the score at 2:1 in the closing moments, Armenia gave up another chance to Belarus: A high ball at the edge of the box was not dealt with correctly and the second ball allowed a shot on the bounce for the Belarusian striker. The ball was sent over but the warning signs were there for all to see. Indecisive play at the back more often than not will be punished at the highest level.
Belarus held on to its lead and secured an away-win. Although its goal mouth lived a charmed life over the course of the 90 minutes, the players took advantage of their scoring opportunities, converting two of their four clear cut chances in front of goal.
For Armenia, the players are left to lick their wounds and contemplate how they managed a defeat from a match they so comprehensively dominated. Looking at the positives, as an attacking force Armenia is as dangerous a team on the counter attack as there is in world football. What it lacks, it seems, is a steely uncompromising determination in defense that could turn narrow defeats like this into no-score draws or the always pleasing 1:0 victory. The forwards will not always have their shooting boots on, and it will be up to the players as a collective to find ways to eke out better results by fortifying their defensive resolve and turning good performances into good results.
Next up for Armenia will be a pair of away fixtures against Malta and Bulgaria as World Cup qualification begins in earnest—the former being a match they should have designs on winning. As for the latter, avoiding defeat against Bulgaria is a must if they are to challenge in their World Cup qualifying group, but sneaking an away victory could provide Armenia a terrific platform for their serious qualification ambitions.