RTÉ’s Soccer Correspondent reports on preparations in Yerevan ahead of the European Championship qualifier between the Republic of Ireland and Armenia.
It was round here that Noah’s Ark ended up, eventually.
After the flood, the great man and the animals finally ended their epic journey on top of Mount Ararat. It will be interesting to see if another great elder can lead his people to the promised land. In Noah’s time the preferred formation was two by two by two by two. You can be certain that Ireland will stick rigidly to four, four, two.
Giovanni Trapattoni appears, thankfully, to have recovered from his recent operation. He has a number of concerns ahead of the Republic’s first game in qualifying for the Championships in Poland and Ukraine but nothing that he hasn’t had to deal with before in his long and illustrious career.
The loss of Damien Duff and Keith Andrews, two certain starters, is unfortunate and the absence of Paul McShane and Keith Treacy won’t help decide the formation of the bench.
But it could be worse.
The transfer speculation surrounding Shay Given, Robbie Keane and Liam Lawrence as transfer deadline day came and went has got to be unsettling for the players, their families and team-mates.
It’s early in the season but ideally you would like your top players to be achieving match sharpness by playing regularly for their clubs. That’s not really the case for Given or Kilbane, Lawrence or McGeady, or even Keane and Doyle. A worry.
And for some reason, perhaps to do with FIFA world rankings, there is a sense that we should be easily taking points off the likes of Armenia, particularly if we harbour ambitions to win the group.
While this is true, Trapattoni will be urging caution. That is his way. Imagine if we were to come away from Yerevan with nothing? The group would already be looking formidable, a veritable Mount Ararat to climb.
Armenia have had some very good results recently. Twelve months ago they beat Belgium here 2-1 and thirteen months ago they were only beaten 2-1 by the then European and now World champions Spain.
In previous European Championship qualifying, they held Poland and Serbia to draws in Yerevan. And of course, the Armenian Under-21s beat their Republic of Ireland counterparts home and away (4-1 and 2-1) and the bad news for Ireland is that many of those players are in the senior squad now, a squad that is clearly improving.
'We have a new team and a new generation,' said Armenia manager Vardan Minasyan, and Trapattoni is right to beware the opposition and the environment.
I took a stroll round Yerevan this morning, the four hour time difference does seem to offer a longer day.
I was here before with Derry City in 2007 for a Champions League qualifier against local side FC Pyunik and as the memories came flooding back so too did a sense of foreboding.
A lot has been spoken of the temperatures in Armenia but you can quickly forget quite how unbearable the heat can be. Even with an evening kick off the humidity and the quality of the pitch, the same pitch that Derry played on, will be factors in the home team’s favour.
After my previous Yerevan experience I wrote the following on the RTE website.
‘First things, first; the heat was unbearable and the pitch was appalling. This is not a post match whinge but an inescapable truth. Global warming has a lot to answer for but when UEFA insist on certain criteria for club licences including stadium access and egress and proper media facilities perhaps they are overlooking the most important thing.
‘Without a decent pitch you can’t have a decent game. The surface of FC Pyunik’s pitch in Yerevan was like the crater of the moon, barely covered with a weed and grass camouflage. Pockmarked throughout, the holes were filled in by sharp gravel and frankly for the players and officials it was dangerous and unplayable.
‘One example of how hot it was came in the first half, about tweny five minutes into the match. Remember this was almost half past eight in the evening local time and it was like being in an oven.
‘During a break in play the Derry City players all went to the bench to take on board more water. So too did the home side; every single one of them, including the goalkeeper; so did the referee and his two assistants AND the fourth official. It was an extraordinary sight and one I’d never seen before, more like a time out in basketball or a break between rounds in boxing.
‘That revealed just how difficult and potentially dangerous it was for all concerned.
‘How long before there must be a safe temperature for players to play in, especially in the Middle East?’
This morning’s stroll around Republican Square brought to mind that trip and the difficulty of the assignment for Derry. They lost two nil but really never got to grips with the conditions. Mind you, their journey to Armenia involved three or four flights and long stopovers in between, hardly ideal logistics.
For Ireland, a direct flight from Dublin and six hours airborne with just a hint of turbulence made it a far easier journey. Also there were thirty two ‘posh’ seats up the front of the aircraft with plenty of legroom so there would be no repeat of ‘Seatgate’ when, during the last campaign, some of the squad had to move down to steerage.
The time difference, the heat and the pitch will all be crucial factors but the lack of match practice could be the most significant issue for Ireland. Trapattoni knows this and the next twenty-four hours is when he earns his corn. His long history will tell him that ‘a good start is half the battle’.