BY STEPHEN GANAVAS (@STEPHENSCOUTED)
36 hours ago, I did not know who Giorgi Arabidze was.
As the team-sheets landed for Portugal vs Georgia in their Under-19 Euro Group A fixture last night, I like many others, expected a dominant Portugal win. After all, Georgia had qualified for the competition as hosts and had played no competitive games in the lead up to the tournament.
While the Georgians did win three of their seven lead-in friendlies, two of those were against Russia and one against Bulgaria. The football world was totally unprepared for what we saw last night.
Then one short 19-year-old magician put a team on his back and almost pulled off the unimaginable.
After 10 minutes, Georgia had Portugal chasing shadows as Arabidze linked up expertly with the all-Giorgi frontline assembled by coach George Kipiani. Giorgi Chakvetadze was a live-wire in transition with his searing pace pivotal in allowing Giorgi Kokhreidze to get in-behind the Portuguese defence or Arabidze into the half-pace on the right.
The 35 minutes during which they shared the pitch, the Triple Giorgis were truly mesmeric. While Chakvetadze played the transition role on the left, Arabidze was tormenting the defence from the right. His pace, combined with technique that would have Manchester City fans thinking they were watching Georgi Kinkladze again, horrified Portugal for 90 minutes.
Before Kokhreidze was sidelined by injury after 35 minutes, Arabidze was at his most unpredictable. Playing upfront, the tiny Kokhreidze stretched the Portuguese central defensive pairing creating even more space for his counterparts to exploit. There were empty pockets of grass everywhere in Portugal’s final third, but the Georgians just could not break the deadlock.
As Kokhreidze left the field, Chakvetadze started to tire in his energy sapping role on a warm, barmy night in Gori.
Arabidze stood up though. Already capped with the senior national team, including three international goals, the delightfully quick-footed winger almost single-handedly made Georgia a threat in the second half as Portugal pressed forward with more control. His technique mirrored – without trying to sound blasphemous – a young Lionel Messi. The 19-year-old carried the ball with venomous speed while the ball never looked like it moved no more than an inch away from his foot at any time during a dribble.
A lot of dribble-centric wingers have trouble translating their prowess into an actual offensive threat though. However, in his inside forward role cutting onto his left-foot, Arabidze enjoyed driving towards the penalty area rather than into wide cul-de-sacs. He was totally unfazed by the numbers Portugal started packing their midfield with.
Not only that, he almost won his country a point with a last-gasp free-kick from distance. He proved at senior level that he can be a devastatingly precise set-piece shooter.
Portugal would win the game. Rui Pedro converted a penalty after being brought down in the box midway through the second half. It was the buzzkill moment Georgia did not deserve.
Georgia coach Kipiani admitted post-match that the result leaves his side in a difficult spot.
“We know where this leaves us in the tournament,’ he told UEFA.com.
‘We have to win our next two games, it’s as simple as that.’
Pending goal difference numbers, four points could be enough for Georgia to qualify for the next round though. With their inspired performance in front of their home fans in their opening game, they should fancy their chances of repeating it against Sweden in their next match.
They will be sweating on the fitness of Kokhreidze and Chakvetadze though. With the Triple Giorgis in full-flight, they have the attacking arsenal to trouble any defence at this competition.