Thursday, August 20, 2015

Belgium, Georgia and Armenia August 2015

Three second level matches in Belgium followed by the UEFA Super Cup in Tbilisi plus other games in Georgia and Armenia.
On the way I visit Stalin’s home town and the impressive city of Yerevan.

At the start I took the Eurostar, which made it through the tunnel OK and on time, to Brussels.

Then on to Roeselare in the south west of the country.

Seraing on song.

7th August  KSV Roeselare 0 Seraing Utd 2   1,275  (50 away)

This initial fixture in the Belgian 2nd  division was played at the decent-sized Schiervelde stadium, a 30 minute+ walk from the centre of town.

A lively group appeared to support the visitors (formerly known as Royal Boussu Dour Borinage) and they would soon have something to cheer.
In fact two things - after 6 minutes Ghana striker N’Sor got the first then the speedy Junior Mansoni delivered a fine second.

Roeselare had a bad first half with numerous misplaced passes.
They did better in the second as they pressed Seraing back from a series of crosses and corners.
From one a defender struck the ball against his own crossbar.

But that was about as near as the home got to retrieving the situation, even though Seraing had Doumbia dismissed, for a bad tackle, with ten minutes remaining.

I indulged in a burger and a couple of beers (Belgian, of course) post-game.
All that was pleasant enough in the town centre in the very mild weather.

Aspirants win.

8th August  Union St Gilloise 0 Eupen 1  Belgian 2nd division  1,827 (c. 30 away)

Back to Brussels for this interesting encounter between an historic club and one with future ‘aspirations’.
The Union ground is walkable from Brussels Suid station and thats the method I choose.

Once there you feel the history with a fine exterior to the main stand and other interior references to past glories.
However those successes were pre-war and although they were just promoted Union have some way to go to emulate those bygone achievements.

Their ground is nicely framed with trees and, for us elderly enthusiasts, it has plenty of terrace reminiscent of past times.
Their opponents, Eupen, from the german-speaking region, are backed by the Qatari Aspire Foundation and they included a couple of players from that country.
One of them, the talented Akram Afif, scored a fine goal after only 6 minutes.

It would turn out to be the winner.

Eupen generally had the better of the first period in a match that had more quality than the day before.
French striker Taulemesse also had chances for the visitors while the home side had pressure near the end and a disallowed ‘goal’ but ultimately were unable to get an equaliser.

So Eupen secured the three points in their bid to return to the Belgian top level.

Even near the sea.

9th August  Coxyde 1 Lierse 1  Belgian 2nd division  2,000 (c. 800 away)

From the capital out towards the coast, via Veurne, to Koksijde.

A good crowd stayed away from the beach and made it to the Henri Houtsaegerstadion for Coxyde’s first match at this level.
And a large group came to follow the newly relegated visitors, they were situated to the right of the small, slightly elevated ‘main stand’.

Lierse put out a complete academy team, aged between 23 and 17.
The youngsters certainly were suited to the artificial pitch and we watched them pass the ball around while the home side backtracked and consolidated in defence.

So it was a contrast in styles - the pass and move of Lierse versus the quicker, direct approach of the more experienced Coxyde team.
Perhaps it was inevitable that despite their control of the ball the tyros failed to convert that into goals.

And on 75 minutes they conceded when Embrechts had space on the left to shoot in off the goalie.
But, and it was deserved, in the final minutes the visitors did equalise - the lively Charles Ankomah converting in front of the celebrating away fans.

Maybe some the Lierse youngsters, including striker Ayoub Allach and at least one of the Africans, could make it to a higher grade ?

Afterwards I picked up my pre-arranged taxi and went back to Veurne for a coffee before getting the train, via Gent and Antwerp, to Amsterdam.

The next morning I had a flight to Tbilisi.

Super it was.

11th August  Barcelona 5 Sevilla 4  UEFA Super Cup  Dinamo Arena, Tbilisi  51,940

10.45pm is not my favourite kick-off time but once you are inside the stadium and see action like this it would be churlish to complain.

This was the first time a major UEFA final had been staged in Georgia and probably the first (and only ?) time many of the attending fans will see Lionel Messi and most of the other stars live.
They were not disappointed.

Barca had Neymar missing (mumps !) but otherwise it was a stellar lineup.
However one man drew most of the focus.

It had been some time since Georgi Kinkladze had performed his magic in Tbilisi so the local fans had been waiting a while to see something similar.
The man to do it, of course, was Lionel Messi.

The match was in many ways characterised by free kicks.
Firstly from the underdogs, Sevilla, as Ever Banega neatly chipped over the wall and past ter Stegen after only 3 minutes.

But the ‘little master’ would show who was the free kick king with two superbly executed efforts - one from near the area, the other from further out.
After 16 minutes Barca had overtaken their opponents and the crowd cried ‘Messi, Messi’

Barcelona then strutted their stuff, sometimes the speed of the passing was breathtaking.
And after Sevilla had gained some play the Catalans increased their advantage just before half-time.
Luis Suarez outpaced Reyes to break free down the right - his shot was saved but he settled and delivered a pass for Rafinha to score their third.

A fourth was added on 52 minutes by Suarez himself following a defensive error and Sevilla looked to be totally out of the game.
However they showed great resilience while being driven on from the touchline by their coach Unai Emery.

Captain Reyes made the run to be on the end of a left wing cross then a Matthieu push gave Sevilla a penalty from which Kevin Gameiro converted to make it 4-3.
Could they possibly get level ?

Barca coach Enrique chose to bring on Marc Bartra to stiffen the defence while Emery switched Immobile for Gameiro.
Both, in different ways, were involved in the eighth goal.
It was Bartra’s error that allowed the Italian striker to cross for another sub., Konoplyanka to convert for an unlikely leveller.
That set the crowd buzzing again.

And so we went into an extra 30 minutes and well into the next morning.
Not that too many were bothered.

Barcelona then regrouped and set about winning the game again.
They took control and pushed Sevilla back.

No more goals in the first extra period before the defining moment came on 115 minutes.
Inevitably it came from a Messi free kick.
His first effort was blocked but he quickly produced an effort that Beto could only parry and Pedro followed up to score, joyously, from close range.

Even then Sevilla could have made it 5-5 - two late chances went agonisingly wide.

Finally, at around, 1.20am, it was over and Barcelona could celebrate a record 5th title - tying AC Milan.
The local fans could tell their grandchildren they were there when Messi and co. strutted their stuff in Tbilisi.
But, they might qualify the thought with admiration for the Sevilla fightback.

Truly it had been a ‘Super’ Cup.

Luckily the Tbilisi metro was running for extended hours and that enabled me to back at my hotel within 30 minutes.

Saburtalo superior.

13th August  Spartaki Tskhinvali 1 Saburtalo 2  Georgian Premier   c. 250

Spartaki are displaced from their home in South Ossetia and have to play in either Gori or here in Tbilisi.

However being in Tbilisi it did make your correspondents’ trip easier - the small stadium was just a bus ride west from Rustaveli.

As you might expect the standard was not up to that witnessed on Tuesday night during the Super Cup.
But as always there were moments to enjoy.

The home side had the better of the first half and they went ahead just before the break when Tsatskrialashvili (I bet even his friends are reluctant to say ‘give us a T’) scored from near in following a right wing cross.
Their tall, strong striker also went close, hitting the bar early in the second half.

But after that the visitors took control.

They equalised on the hour and eventually secured the points when a penalty was awarded for a push on captain Kharaishvili.
The same man took the kick and converted comfortably with about 3 minutes remaining.

The decision certainly had an element of doubt about it and the home coach definitely thought so -  he was ejected from the pitch as a result of his protests.
So Saburtalo took the points and I returned to the centre via bus and metro.

Incidentally it was so hot we had (for me) an unprecedented four drinks breaks.

And talking of drink, back in the hotel I opened my Georgian wine.

Gori gore Poti - Poti trained.

14th August  Dila Gori 2 Kolkheti Poti 0   Georgian Premier  c.1,000

For my second league game I travelled an hour or so north of the capital to Gori.
Which is most famous for being the birthplace of Josef Dzhugashvili better known as Stalin.

So I arrived early and checked out the Stalin museum with its numerous pictures and photos of the man together with his office and the railway carriage he used when travelling around the Soviet Union.
Afterwards you can stroll along Stalin avenue - where I stopped for much needed refreshment (it was very hot) - and past the castle to the local stadium.  

Where the league champions hosted the visitors from the port city of Poti.

This was match played at a steady pace where, for most of it, the home side were in control.
They had more possession and offered more threats, particularly from their main striker.

Dila went ahead on 29 minutes when Navalovski volleyed in at the far post.
And they should have added a few more especially as Kolkheti went down to ten men following a red card and later to nine after another was carried off.

But just one more came, in the closing minutes, easily from a breakaway.
So comfortably enough for the home side.

And it was very comfortable getting back to Tbilisi as the bus station is opposite the ground.

The next day, Saturday, I made the trip from Tbilisi to Yerevan using a marshrutka.
It took around six hours, allowing for delays at the start, long arguments, border issues and a stop for refreshment.
But it is fairly cheap, around £8 ($12), and there is some impressive scenery to enjoy, especially once you crossover into Armenia.

Once in Yerevan I made a short taxi ride into the centre and my hotel near the impressive Republic Square.
In comparison with Tbilisi the central area of the Armenian capital is much more compact and attractive with that fine square and the plush pedestrianised North Avenue.

On the Saturday evening the fashionistas come out and strut their stuff while the kids enjoy the musical ‘fountains’.
A fine ambience is enjoyed by all in very hot weather.

The next morning I visited the equally impressive Armenia History museum - and for sure Armenia certainly has a history to relate.
It is well told from the earliest times, through the trauma of 1915, to the present.

Later on Sunday afternoon I saw my first match in the country :

The goals of Jeremiah.

16th August  Banants 2 Alashkert 2  Armenian Premier  c. 250

My smartphone indicated it was 39 degrees in Yerevan when this match started.
As expected, like in Georgia, we had drinks breaks but this time just one in each half.
That felt more sensible and it maintained more of a rhythm to the match.

This was a watchable game with plenty of attacking play - the visitors often sending long balls behind the home defence to the Brazilian striker Heber.
They would benefit early on when Dukic was set free for an easy finish.

But lively Nigerian front man John Jeremiah replied twice for Banants, both times with runs through the away rearguard.
The first time his shot squirmed past the goalie, the second was a more impressive strike.

That gave Banants a 2-1 advantage just after half-time.

However Alashkert then tended to get on top and they equalised on 62 minutes via a neat chip by Manasyan.
I was expecting more goals to follow but it remained 2-2.

The small crowd, as in Georgia it was free entry, drifted away to get hydrated and to get home for the Man City v Chelsea game.

So a low key match but it certainly had some entertaining moments.
As in similar countries, the Baltic region comes to mind, the fans don’t turn out much for the local league games.
But if its the Champions/Europa League or especially the national team playing there would be a lot more at the match.

Back to my hotel by taxi and like the rest I settled down to watch the Premier League.

The next day I travelled from hot Yerevan, via cooler Moscow to moderate England.

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