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03.04.15 - 09.04.15

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Tskhadadze’s Early Promise Should Worry Poles, Scots and Irish

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As Georgia suffered a predictable but far from embarrassing 2-0 defeat at the hands of world champions Germany in Tbilisi on March 29, their already slim hopes of qualifying for Euro 2016 were realistically extinguished.

However, there were enough signs of encouragement in the Georgian performance to suggest that they will present stiffer opposition in the latter half of the qualifying campaign than they did in the first.

Head coach Kakha Tskhadadze, appointed at the start of 2015 to replace the outgoing Temur Ketsbaia, vowed to adopt a more attacking approach than his predecessor and, although Georgia were far from cavalier in their strategy against the Germans, the hosts posed enough attacking intent to validate his promise.

Ketsbaia’s ultra-defensive approach, particularly in the 1-0 loss to Scotland in Glasgow in October, was one defender too far for the Georgian support who were by and large unsurprised and unperturbed by his resignation which preceded the humbling 4-0 defeat to Poland in Tbilisi a month later.

With three points from four games, Tskhadadze inherited a desperate situation and a morale-deprived squad. But it is with such despondency that most coaches are met when appointed to a new position. Generally, jobs become available because the last man failed or was fed up.

The latter was certainly true of Ketsbaia who described Georgian football as “dead” in a parting shot before his departure. The diagnosis was somewhat harsh, even though the national side had nosedived out of the world’s top 100 and the domestic league remained mired by financial problems and regular crises of alleged match-fixing.

So, charged with the task of resuscitating the national game, if indeed football’s popularity here has not yet been surpassed by rugby union, Tskhadadze’s ointment of choice has been positivity. High dosages of the stuff.

Recalling a handful of players who had drifted in to obscurity under Ketsbaia, the new coach’s selection of a 33-man provisional squad last month was a vivid expression of the slate being cleaned.

Clear beneficiaries of this policy are central defender Aleksandre Amisulashvili and attacker Levan Kenia. The former, in his early 30s and playing in Azerbaijan at Inter Baku who also remain under Tskhadadze’s stewardship until the season’s end, lasted barely a minute against the Germans before hobbling off. But his reinstatement still appears a wise move, and Georgia’s chances of snatching an unlikely result against Germany were weakened in his unfortunate absence.

In the remaining matches, Amisulashvili’s experience ought to return some solidity to a once-thrifty backline.

Kenia meanwhile was one of the main success stories of Tskhadadze’s opening two games against Malta and Germany, exhibiting the skill and aggressive running qualities that first earned him international recognition as a 16-year old under Klaus Toppmoller.

After goals from Marco Reus and Thomas Muller had steered Germany to a two-goal cushion before half-time, the Georgians would have been forgiven for limiting the potential damage.

But Tskhadadze’s men pushed forward purposefully, risking the concession of further goals which mercifully did not come.

They forced several corner-kicks and committed four or five players forward in attacks, an unfathomable sight under Ketsbaia. While the set-piece delivery and final ball in general was disappointing, something Tskhadadze bemoaned in his post-match press conference, there were glimmers of hope well worthy of the applause from the Georgian fans which followed the full-time whistle.

Georgia’s next fixture is a friendly in Linz, Austria against Ukraine in preparation for the qualifier against Poland on June 13. Despite hauling 11 points from their opening five matches and topping the section at halfway, the Poles’ defensive frailties have been frequently exposed but rarely exploited in this group.

Even in Tbilisi in November, Georgia at perhaps their lowest ebb missed a glaring opportunity to open the scoring with Sandro Kobakhidze the guilty party.

Tskhadadze’s next home match comes against Scotland on September 4, which may be played in front of a partly closed Dinamo Arena depending on UEFA’s verdict regarding a handful of solo pitch invasions at the Germany game, to be delivered on May 21.

But while the Scottish media and fans begin to panic about the threat of closed doors, the likelihood that they will be playing a revitalized Georgia under a refreshingly positive coach should be of far greater concern.

Scottish dreams of major tournament qualification have been rudely awoken in Tbilisi before in 2007, as no Scot needs to be reminded.

Four days later, Georgia visit Ireland whose agricultural style of play has won them few friends and an unsatisfactory eight points so far.

The Georgians, in the last uninspiring throes of Ketsbaia’s reign, were within a minute of drawing with the Irish in Tbilisi last September before a moment of magic from Aiden McGeady whose impact has since dwindled for club and country.

Scotland assistant manager Mark McGhee claims Georgia “will still have a say in who qualifies” and that, if proved true, will be of some consolation at least for Tskhadadze’s side.

Alastair Watt

2.04.2015

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