Keith Fahey came off the bench to launch the Republic of Ireland's Euro 2012
qualifying campaign with a hard-fought victory in Armenia.
The Birmingham midfielder struck his first senior international goal after 76
minutes to edge the Irish past Vardan Minasyan's men at the sweltering Yerevan
No-one will have been more delighted than captain Robbie Keane, who passed up a
glorious early chance, had a goal ruled out for offside and then hit the post on
a night when things did not go for him in the final third.
However, there was as much relief as pleasure as he and his team-mates left the
pitch having been put to the test by their hosts.
Armenia gave as good as they got and although goalkeeper Shay Given had few
saves to make which genuinely taxed him, the home side were quick, direct and
technically gifted and were certainly no push-over.
Indeed, in playmaker Henrikh Mkhitaryan, they had arguably the best player on
the pitch, and the Republic will hope Armenia can take points from some of their
rivals when they visit the Yerevan Republican Stadium.
The win sends Ireland into Tuesday's home clash with Group B minnows Andorra
knowing a perfect start would set the up very nicely for what lies ahead.
Manager Giovanni Trapattoni admitted at his pre-match press conference in
Yerevan that he would happily settle for a 1-0 win from what he promised would
be a tricky fixture, and if anyone doubted his voracity, they were soon
disabused of the notion.
Armenia, who have beaten both Poland and Belgium in their capital city in
recent years, were far from over-awed by the task with which they were
presented, and with the impressive Mkhitaryan, Shakhtar Donetsk's recent
£5.8million acquisition, pulling the strings behind lone striker Yura Movsisyan,
they made life intensely difficult for the visitors.
Mkhitaryan treated Derby midfielder Paul Green to a torrid welcome to
competitive international football, while wide men Edgar Malakyan and Levon
Pachajyan kept full-backs John O'Shea and Kevin Kilbane on the toes throughout
the opening 45 minutes.
For all that, the Republic could have gone in at the break comfortably in
Keane might have put them ahead within eight minutes, but volleyed agonisingly
wide from Kevin Doyle's flick-on with just goalkeeper Roman Berezovsky to beat,
and he thought he had done so 10 minutes before the break when he shot home from
Glenn Whelan's free-kick, only for an offside flag to ruin his celebrations.
However, perhaps the best chance fell to central defender Sean St Ledger, whose
powerful 22nd-minute header from an Aiden McGeady corner was palmed away by
Given had to save from Karlen Mkrtchyan and Pachajyan in quick succession, and
he was grateful to see Movsisyan volley over 14 minutes before the break.
Trapattoni sent his side back into battle knowing they were in a game, and they
were almost caught out within five minutes when Movsisyan combined well with
full-back Artak Erdigaryan, but then overhit his through-ball to the supporting
Mkhitaryan forced another save from Given and Mkrtchyan hooked just wide with
Armenia sensing a genuine opportunity, and there was an anxious moment for the
Ireland goalkeeper when defender Richard Dunne's headed clearance looped just
over his own crossbar
But as the home side forged forward in search of the opening goal, they left
space at the back and Doyle almost exploited that 19 minutes from time with a
powerful drive which Berezovsky had to palm away.
In the meantime, Trapattoni had replaced McGeady with Fahey, and it was he who
finally put the visitors in front with 14 minutes remaining.
Armenia could not clear their lines as Keane and then Doyle made nuisances of
themselves, and when the ball broke to the Birmingham midfielder, he smashed it
past Berezovsky to snatch victory.
In a tense finish to the game, the home side penned Ireland back inside their
own half, but stout defence won the day as Trapattoni's men once again ensured
that one goal was enough.
Republic of Ireland boss Giovanni Trapattoni has warned his side's Euro 2012 qualifying rivals they face the sternest of tests in Armenia. Trapattoni had predicted a tight encounter and has warned Group B rivals Russia and Slovakia that they will not have it all their own way when they make the trip to the former Soviet republic.
He said: "I saw in the qualification for the World Cup that Armenia lost one or two games, but they played very, very well. I think it will be not easy also for other teams coming here. Yesterday I said that this was not an easy game for two reasons: it was the first game and psychologically the weather was very hot for our players, who have played only one or two games so far this season.
"I knew it would be very, very difficult. I said I didn't know which game it would be, whether it would be possible to play well or possible not to play well, and it proved to be a very, very difficult game for us.
"But I think over the 90 minutes, we deserved to win the game. We had difficult situations in our defence and Shay Given had to make some important saves, but in the first half, Robbie Keane had two very good chances.''
Keane skewed an eighth-minute volley just wide and after having a goal disallowed for offside, hit the post with the sort of chance he has buried throughout his international career. However, Trapattoni insisted that his lack of football this season - he has made just two appearances as a substitute for Tottenham - has not left him lacking sharpness.
He said: "He is a little bit injured at the moment, that's why I changed him. But he also created chances for us.''
Trapattoni has made something of a habit of guiding his side to narrow victories in competitive games - indeed, they have lost only once under the Italian when it mattered, the first leg of their World Cup play-off against France last November. His critics often accuse him of taking a conservative approach, but having admitted last night that he would willingly take a 1-0 victory, he was satisfied with exactly that result.
He said: "It is not easy for a coach or manager to say before a game 'we will win' because we have to respect our opponents. We must have respect for those opponents. I thought it would be possible to win this game, but so did the Armenian coach and we knew it would not be easy.''