Armenia suffered a 1:0 defeat at the hands of Bulgaria at the Vassil Levski Stadium in Sofia on Tues., Sept. 11. A solitary strike on the stroke of half time from Stanislav Manolev was enough to secure the victory for Bulgaria, which completed its pair of home fixtures with four points following an opening day draw versus Italy.
The match was an untidy, bad-tempered affair that was littered with late challenges and bookings. It finally boiled over on 70 minutes when Armenia’s Marcos Pizzelli and Bulgaria’s Svetoslav Dyakov received their marching orders after a scuffle, following a late challenge by Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Yordan Minev in the Bulgarian penalty area.
Things went from bad to worse for Armenia four minutes later when Gevorg Ghazaryan was also sent for an early shower when he was adjudged to have kicked a ball violently at a ball boy.
Playing with nine men, Armenia was unable to overturn the deficit in the remaining quarter of an hour. The defeat sees Armenia drop to third in Group B after two rounds of matches, but the repercussions from this performance will be felt long after the final whistle was blown.
Disciplinary sanctions on both Pizzelli and Ghazaryan will mean Armenia will be without their services for the key match-up versus Italy next month in Yerevan. Following this away-defeat the importance of winning the home fixtures is even greater. With two key players unavailable and the talented Italians coming to town, the next assignment looks a little more daunting.
The mental challenges the Armenian team faced in the hostile environment in Sofia proved too much to handle on this occasion. Experienced players such as Pizzelli and Ghazaryan will no doubt be annoyed that they allowed themselves to get involved in “unnecessary afters.” Cooler heads invariably prevail, as yet again the importance of meeting the psychological challenges at the highest level of soccer was highlighted.
Armenia entered the fixture buoyed by the welcome return of Gevorg Ghazaryan and Roman Berezovsky in goal. The inclusion of Artur Yedigaryan in the starting line-up meant Marcos Pizzelli dropped to the bench as Vardan Minasyan looked for Mkrtchyan and Yedigaryan to add some steal to the midfield and an extra layer of protection in front of his back four.
Armenia set out their stall to protect a point away from home, while hoping to create something on the counter attack. Bulgaria started very brightly, however, and the opening exchanges were dominated by the home side.
The first chance of the game fell Armenia’s way. Ghazaryan cut in from the left wing and sent a shot on goal. Mihaylov in the Bulgarian goal collected the ball safely, avoiding any rebounds to the predatory Movsisyan, who had crashed the net anticipating the second ball.
Bulgaria threatened the Armenia goal on the half hour. An in-swinging corner was met powerfully by Ivanov, but the big man who had ventured up from the back failed to hit the target. Ten minutes later Bulgaria was knocking on the door again. Another corner led to a goalmouth scramble before the ball was eventually cleared.
The final minutes before the break had plenty of action. Firstly, Levon Hayrapetyan picked up a knock and needed to be replaced. Soon after, Henrikh Mkhitaryan had a shot deflected off of the arm of Ivanov and skip just past the post onto the side netting. Shouts for a penalty were waved away as the defender had kept his arms by his side. It probably was a fair call, but we’ve seen them given.
A quick counter from the resultant corner kick saw Bulgaria break and score at the worst time for Armenia. Just when Armenia thought they’d gotten to the break unscathed, they were hit with a sucker punch.
Ivelin Popov picked the ball up on the left wing and beat Hovsepyan on the outside. His low cross with the outside of his right foot was played into that corridor of uncertainty between the goalkeeper and the defense. A defenders nightmare, it was left to Stanislav Manolev to slide into the six-yard box and send the ball into the roof of the net.
A goal behind, Armenia’s hand was forced in the second half. A good chance fell to Ghazaryan on 53 minutes. Ozbiliz gained the byline and squared the ball across goal. Ghazaryan at the back post decided to fake his shot and cut to the outside. He was closed down quickly and the chance to shoot was gone.
Pizzelli was introduced for Ozbiliz after 55 minutes and he crafted Armenia’s best chance of the match. Pizzelli picked the ball up in a central location and slipped it to Movsisyan who had checked his run brilliantly to stay on-side. His powerful shot went inches over the crossbar but without hitting the target, he’d probably want that one back.
The frustration that was brewing throughout the fixture finally boiled over following a needless push by Henrikh Mkhitaryan on Yordan Minev, as the defender shepherded the ball back to his goalkeeper. The Bulgarian protests were led by Minev’s twin brother Veselin.
Marcos Pizzelli got involved and was on the receiving end of what looked like a head-butt from Veselin Minev. The resulting mellay saw multiple players get involved, with arms raised and plenty of shoving. Pizzelli was given a straight red card for retaliation while Bulgarian defender Dyakov was given his second yellow followed by a red for his involvement. The Bulgarian goalkeeper was also booked as the officials took a full four minutes to sort everything out.
With both teams down to 10 men and still a goal behind, a little composure was required from the Armenian players. It wasn’t forthcoming, however. Firstly, Artak Yedigaryan took an ill-advised long distance shot that sailed high and wide, drawing jeers from the partisan home crowd.
Soon after, Ghazaryan went to retrieve a ball for a throw-in between the two benches. In what can only be described as a rush of blood to the head, he kicked a second ball in frustration, striking a ball boy. The incident was blown out of proportion by a combination of what had gone on minutes earlier along with the reaction of the nearby Bulgarian bench.
The referee produced a straight red card for Ghazaryan when perhaps a calming word would have served everyone involved a little better. Armenia was reduced to nine men at this stage, and the tie was slipping away.
Minasyan introduced Artur Sarkisov in an attempt to salvage something from the match. With the crowd incited and the home team a man to the good, Armenia was unable to regain their composure well enough to mount a comeback. In fact, they were lucky not to concede a second when Roman Berezovsky snuffed out a one on one break away by Rangelov deep into added time.
The final whistle capped a frustrating outing for Armenia, which now finds itself already behind the pace in Group B. Suspensions to Pizzelli and Ghazaryan will certainly hurt as the team welcomes Italy to Yerevan next month.
In saying that, however, the campaign is a marathon rather than a sprint. Armenia recovered from an atrocious start in their Euro campaign, amassing a mere one point from the first two matches to ultimately challenge for a playoff spot.
Currently sitting on three points, Armenia’s home form will be the key to righting the ship. It can be done as quickly as the next match, which after this performance can’t come quickly enough.
Armenia: R. Berezovsky, S. Hovsepyan (YC), R. Arzumanyan, L. Hayrapetyan (43’ Artak Yedigaryan (YC)), H. Mkoyan, K. Mkrtchyan (YC), H. Mkhitaryan, G. Ghazaryan (YC/RC), Artur Edigaryan (YC) (76’ A. Sarkisov), A. Özbiliz (55’ M. Pizzelli (RC)), Y. Movsisyan
Coach: V. Minasyan
Bulgaria: N. Mihaylov (YC), N. Bodurov, I. Ivanov, V. Minev, Y. Minev, S. Dyakov (YC/RC), S. Manolev, V. Gadzhev (60’ G. Sarmov), G. Milanov (YC), I. Mitsanski (65’ D. Rangelov), I. Popov (80’ E. Gargorov (YC))
Coach: L. Penev
Referee: S. Studer