Euro 2012 Qualification Group F GEORGIA 1 CROATIA 0
By Alastair Watt
Monday, March 28
A last-minute goal from Levan Kobiashvili was the cause of widespread ecstasy across Georgia as it earned a miraculous 1-0 victory over Croatia at Dinamo Stadium in Tbilisi on Saturday night.
This sensational success for Temuri Ketsbaia’s side has made Georgia serious contenders for at least a play-off place in Group F.
Sitting in 8th place in the FIFA World Rankings and 64 places ahead of Georgia, the Croatians came into the match as very strong favourites.
The visitors’ cause was also helped by the absence of two of Georgia’s key players, Malkhaz Asatiani and Jano Ananidze both of whom had been instrumental in an unbeaten start to the Group F campaign.
Both sides entered the arena to an electric atmosphere in the sold out Dinamo Stadium. A few hundred Croatian fans had made the journey east but their chants were drowned out by the masses’ cries of ‘SA…QART….VE…LO!’
After a respectfully observed minute’s silence for the victims of the Japanese earthquake, we were underway.
Prior to the match, Ketsbaia had admitted that a draw would have not have been a bad result and, in the first half, reasons for this statement became clear.
With Vladimer Dvalishvili cutting a lonely and isolated figure in attack for Georgia, the hosts struggled for any meaningful possession in the opposition half as the Croats asserted their superiority with some crisp passing moves.
However, for all their territorial domination, Georgian goalkeeper Nukri Revishvili was forced into only one first half save as he showed great agility to punch away Mladen Petric’s rasping shot in the 28th minute.
The half-time whistle was met with satisfied applause from the home crowd as they seemed content with a disciplined, defensive first half showing from the Georgians.
Ketsbaia made one change at the interval, replacing lone striker Dvalishvili with crowd favourite David Siradze.
Three minutes after the break, Revishvili was called into action for a second time as he reacted smartly to divert Niko Kranjcar’s dipping effort wide of the post.
Chances for either side were at a premium as Croatia could not find a way through Georgia’s gritty defence while Georgia were wasteful in possession on the counter attack.
In the 72nd minute, Georgia forced a corner kick which was taken by Kobiashvili and headed over by the unmarked Zurab Khizanishvili.
It was Georgia’s best chance yet and was enough to enliven the nervous home support.
Four minutes later, Khizanishvili went close again when his well-struck volley flew narrowly over the Croatian goal after the visitors had only partially cleared a Gogita Gogua free-kick.
Suddenly, it was the Georgians who looked more threatening as Gogua fired a powerful shot over the bar in the 78th minute before fellow substitute Otar Martsvaladze embarked on an adventurous run, beating three or four Croats before eventually running out of steam.
With six minutes remaining, Croatian coach Slaven Bilic made a defensive change as he replaced striker Petric with midfielder Daniel Pranjic. This implied that the Croats might be settling for a draw but Georgia had other ideas.
As the last seconds of normal time ticked away, Martsvaladze crept in behind the Croatian defence, kept the ball in play and sidestepped Croatian captain Darijo Srna before setting up Kobiashvili who swept the ball past Vedran Runje with the aid of a slight deflection.
As the ball struck the Croatian net, scenes of unprecedented joy broke out. The players, the coaching staff, the ballboys, the photographers and of course the remarkable fans could not contain their sheer delight. It was utter pandemonium as, even in the usually reserved press box, there were more than a few emotional embraces.
Ketsbaia’s men survived a couple of late scares to hold on to a precious victory, arguably Georgia’s best ever, and spark jubilant celebrations across the whole country.
The Georgians will savour this feeling for as long as they can before the next step on their qualification quest, Tuesday’s trip to play Israel in Tel Aviv.
Georgia: Revishvili, Salukvadze, Khubutia, Kaladze, Amisulashvili, Khizanishvili, Kankava, Daushvili (Gogua 73), Iashvili, (Martsvaladze 62), Kobiashvili, Dvalishvili (Siradze 46).
Subs not used: Loria, Kvirkvelia, Kashia, Aladashvili.
Croatia: Runje, Strinic, Lovren, Corluka, Rakitic (Perisic 61), Modric, Srna, Kalinic, Dujmovic, Kranjcar (Jelavic 70), Petric (Pranjic 84).
Subs not used: Pletikosa, Simunic, Vukojevic, Manjukic.