WE’VE grown so accustomed to Giovanni Trapattoni casting Ireland as David versus Goliath that it almost came as a shock yesterday to hear an opposition manager insisting that the roles should be reversed.
But at his pre-match press conference in Yerevan, Armenian coach Vardan Minasyan left his audience in no doubt how he sees the balance of power going into the opening night of the Group B campaign.
“It’s a strong group but the favourites, for me, are Russia and Ireland,” he said. “Then Slovakia and Macedonia, who are also strong teams. Ireland have many high quality players and if one doesn’t play, you have another choice.
“To beat a strong team is a very good achievement for us, because it gives us confidence. We played very well and beat Poland two years ago. After that we played draws against Portugal and Serbia and those results gave us confidence, which is very important in today’s football.”
So would he consider a draw against Ireland a satisfactory result?
“Of course. That would be a good result.”
Nor was Minasyan inclined to read too much into the fact that an Armenian U21 side – seven of whom have since graduated to the senior panel – beat their Irish counterparts 4-1 last year.
“The U21 and national team are completely different levels,” he said. “This is another level, another experience.”
Something similar could be said of the 36-year-old Armenian coach, a former assistant to the late Ian Porterfield who is about to find himself in direct opposition to one of the most experienced and decorated managers in world football.
“First of all, for me, it will be interesting,” he smiled. “Of course, no doubt, Trapattoni is a very famous coach, a very strong coach and he showed it during the game against France, a game you had to win. I started my career as a coach just five or six years ago and so I have a long way to go.”
Minasyan said that, having watched Ireland play Argentina in the recent friendly at the Aviva Stadium, he feels he knows what to expect from Trapattoni’s team.
“They are very strong, very aggressive, with many players who play in England. Here in Armenia, the Premier League is our favourite league, not Spanish or Italian, because the Premier League is more competitive. Ireland is a very good team, as they showed in the second half of the game against Argentina.”
But if Minasyan is respectful, he is not cowed. He may see Armenia as minnows but he also knows that, on a good night, his side can punch above their weight.
“We have a plan to win but the game will show us if we can succeed,” he said. “We must have maximum concentration over 90 minutes and not allow the opposition chances to score. Our aim will be to play aggressively and not give space and time to the opponent. We go onto the pitch to win but we have to understand that the Irish team is a strong team.”
While the Armenian side scarcely plays host to any household names, the Irish U21s won’t quickly forget striker Henrikh Mkhitarayan who grabbed a hat-trick against them and who, on the back of being elevated to the senior ranks, has just completed a transfer to Ukrainian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. “The news is good for the player and good for Armenian football,” said Minasyan.
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