Ireland claim their place in play-offs
Roman Berezovsky is deemed to have handled the ball outside his area when blocking Simon Cox’s lob, the Armenian goalkeeper receiving a red card for his troubles. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Republic of Ireland 2 Armenia 1:Well, that was in keeping with the script. After nine games of seat of the pants football the final leg of the journey into a play-off place was never going to be without controversy and ammunition for those who believe Giovanni Trapattoni's side is blessed with more than its fair share of good fortune.
Everything conspired against Armenia in a game that would have cemented their place in national folklore. Referee Eduardo Gonzalez can hardly be blamed for assuming on first glance that Roman Berezovsky handled outside his box in the 31st minute when blocking Simon Cox's attempted lob, but the fact the Ireland striker used his arm to control the through ball will hurt as much as the sending off that ensued.
When Valeri Aleksanyan inexplicably booted a cross that was rolling to safety into his own net 12 minutes later, the 10 men were one down and the hosts, though they started brightly, had done little or nothing to deserve it. Ireland's brightest spell came after the break when they sought to build on their lead and quell any fightback. Their endeavour was rewarded by young replacement goalkeeper Arsen Petrosyan when he showed his jittery side and flapped at Aiden McGeady's cross in the 59th minute to allow Richard Dunne bundle the ball home from close range.
With the game all but wrapped up the Ireland defence then stood off Yura Movsisyan, as they had for much of the night, and watched as he laid the ball off for Henrikh Mkhitaryan on the edge of the box. He halved the deficit with a shot Given should have saved but the dismissal of Kevin Doyle for a second yellow card nine minutes from time came too late for them to exert a bigger influence on proceedings, though it will rule the Wolves striker out of the first leg of Ireland's play-off next month.
With Sweden taking the one finals place available to the best runner-up and France topping group D with a home draw against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ireland will take a place among the top seeds, according to the FAI, and look forward to two-legged play-off next month against one from Bosnia, Montenegro, Turkey or Estonia to book a berth to Poland/Ukraine.
The draw will be made on Thursday in Krakow, Poland.
It was Serbia’s defeat to Slovenia that sealed that seeding and ended any chance of a poetic reunion with France two years after Henry-gate ended hopes of a World Cup place in Trapattoni's first campaign.
Then there were emotional calls for France to do the honourable thing and offer a replay because a handball sealed Ireland's fate, but that will surely be conveniently forgotten now that a hand, or lack of one, played such a crucial role in making Ireland's life that bit easier this evening.
Man-of-the-match Simon Cox was certainly not dwelling on it.
"It's an unbelievable night for Irish football," he told Sky Sports. "We needed to get six points out of six (from the last two qualifiers), and we got them and gave ourselves the best possible chance.
"We've got what we wanted in the end, which is a play-off place. Luck of the draw now and we'll take whatever comes. We came out with the biggest mentality that we could find and we played like heroes tonight, and we got the right result and the result we needed."
It's not all good news, given Ireland's record in play-offs reads 'played six, lost five' after defeats to Spain, Belgium, Turkey, the Netherlands and France and a solitary win over Iran that took Mick McCarthy's side to Japan in 2002.
That was before Ireland had their lucky charm, however, who is not grateful for the perceived inferiority of the opponents but the advantage of having the second leg at home.
“All the second-placed teams are very important. We must accept whichever team," said Trapattoni afterwards. “The first and second teams in the table are always great teams. But I think it would be better to play the first game away and the second at home."
The Italian admitted afterwards that his side struggled in the first half tonight but was delighted with the character they showed to pull through.
“Armenia in the first half played very, very, very well and it was very difficult to control the game. They had more possession, yes, they played better than us, yes, in the first half, but I don’t remember any particularly difficult situations for us.”
Opposite number Vardan Minasyan’s post-match press conference was brief and to the point.
“Congratulations to the Irish team, I wish you luck in the play-off," he said. “You are a very good team, but I am very proud of my team. We have done a very good job and we can be proud.”