Georgia’s World Cup Dream Already Fading after Spirited Loss to Austria

Two first-half headers were sufficient for Austria to emerge with a 2-1 victory in the opening World Cup 2018 qualifier in Group D over Georgia at Dinamo Arena in Tbilisi, rendering Georgia’s hopes of an historic first qualification for a major tournament already bruised.

For Georgia’s head coach, the Slovakian Vladimir Weiss, this was a competitive debut following an assortment of friendlies which peaked with a 1-0 win over Spain in early June.

That historic victory meant that the pre-match mood in an over half-full Dinamo Arena was more positive than had been the case for some time.

That enthusiasm didn’t appear to be diminished by the apparently defensive lineup named by Weiss, with three central defenders, Guram Kashia, Alexandre Amisulashvili and Saba Kverkvelia, and no place for fan favorite, Tornike Okriashvili.

And the home side responded to a buoyant home support with a quick start, exposing Austria’s vulnerability at central defence with a succession of crossed balls not convincingly cleared.

Soon though, the Austrians, who endured a dire Euro 2016 where they exited at the group stage, established a measure of control on the game with Bayern Munich’s David Alaba and Stoke City’s Marko Arnautovic central to their slick attacking moves.

The first scare for Georgia came in the 11th minute as Alaba’s free-kick was headed over by Marc Janko from close-range. The home defence were found wanting on that occasion, and there was to be no such lucky escape five minutes later.

From a similar position, 30 metres out and to the left, Alaba curled a tempting cross in between Georgian goalkeeper Giorgi Loria and his defenders, with Martin Hinteregger rising to head home the opener and flatten the atmosphere but for a few hundred ecstatic Austrian supporters behind the goal.

The Georgian riposte was reasonable as Amisulashvili and surprise starter Jaba Jigauri were both denied with quasi-acrobatic efforts, the former going over the bar and the latter firing straight at Austrian goalkeeper Robert Almer.

A better chance followed when Jano Ananidze volleyed feebly wide from six meters in the 35th minute. Exasperation filled the stadium, an emotion that was replaced by near devastation seven minutes later as Austria doubled their tally.

Arnautovic tricked his way to the Georgian by-line in the right-back area sluggishly manned by ageing Ucha Lobjanidze, before dinking the ball over for Janko to head into an empty net. “Game over” was the cry from much of the terraces.

Upon the half-time whistle, a forlorn home support vented their discontent somewhat harshly, roundly booing a Georgian side that had competed well, created good chances but trailed by two goals.

Janko nearly added a third which would have emptied the ground, but was denied by a fabulous Loria save when one-on-one in the 56th minute.

The home support was spurred into life by the outstanding Vako Kazaishvili, who headed against the Austrian post in the 65th minute, before Ananidze spurned one of several shooting opportunities from long-range.

Once the golden boy of Georgian football, it looked like being another fruitless night for Ananidze until, out of nothing, he slammed a shot past Almer from 25 meters to half the deficit and enliven a home crowd that now, with 12 minutes remaining, sensed blood.

The Austrians, having been relatively comfortable until this point, endured a nervy finale and had to clear a Georgian corner off the line but clung on for a vital opening day win, as Georgia’s players sank to their knees on the turf at the final whistle.

It proved an exciting night, but with a familiar conclusion – no points. The inclusion of Lobjanidze and solitary striker Vladimir Dvalishvili leaves Weiss open to criticism, with both producing ineffective displays that most Georgian football observers could have foreseen.

However, Georgia created more chances than they have done in any qualification game for many years (Gibraltar apart) and, even if a place at Russia 2018 might be beyond them, there was enough to suggest that Georgia will draw and win games they are not expected to in this group.

Next month’s trip to play Ireland and then Wales might not present obvious point-earning potential, but with the same attitude and a couple of personnel changes, Weiss’s Georgia won’t be beaten easily.

Alastair Watt

08 September 2016 19:28