Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Euro 2016: Time for Armenia’s men to deliver is now

Time is running out for underachievers who had a breakout year in the last staging of the championships, writes Jonathan Wilson.
The task for the Armenians has become tougher with their star player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, right, missing with a foot injury. Keld Navntoft / Reuters
The task for the Armenians has become tougher with their star player, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, right, missing with a foot injury. Keld Navntoft / Reuters

At such an early stage of the qualification campaign, with the top two in each group to qualify and third place guaranteed a play-off place, there is no need to panic.

But football does not just hinge on points and performances; perception also matters, which makes Armenia’s qualifier at home to Serbia tomorrow of great significance.

Nobody is sure any more what Armenia are. For 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were just another minnow.

But then, suddenly, in qualifying for the last European Championships, they had three straight wins, scored 11 goals in the process and played fluid, neat, attacking ­football.

Without warning they became a breakout side, a team that could cast aside the predictability of modern football on the back of a young generation of players, who, together, were far more than the sum of their parts.

A red card for their goalkeeper and an own goal in their final qualifier – away to the Republic of Ireland – cost Armenia a place in the play-offs, but the assumption was that the side, led by Borussia Dortmund’s attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan, would continue to progress.

Then they finished second bottom of their World Cup qualifying group, but there are mitigating circumstances.

It was a tough and tight group and Armenia did achieve some good results, most notably winning 4-0 away to Denmark.

But even though they finished just three points off second place, there was a sense of progress stalled. Vardan Minasyan was replaced as manager by the former Switzerland Under 21 coach Bernard Challandes, but his start was disappointing as Armenia lost 2-1 in Denmark.

With Albania winning 1-0 in Portugal, the group now looks a genuine five-way fight, or at least it will if Armenia can get off the mark. Serbia, though, also has a fine crop of emerging talent and Armenia will be hampered by the foot injury that has ruled out Mkhitaryan.

That Armenia are even considered contenders for qualification is a sign of their enhanced status.

Their greatest moment as a football nation came in 1973 when Ararat Yerevan, which functioned as a de facto national side in Soviet times, won an unexpected double under Nikita Simonyan, who had already won the double as a player and coach at Spartak Moscow.

He was of Armenian heritage and had essentially been exiled to his homeland following disagreements with officials at Spartak.

“It was much harder to win the league with Ararat than it was with Spartak Moscow,” Simonyan said. “We had some good players, but essentially we were a provincial side. I had to change my personal style, because the players had a different mentality.

“We had two Ukrainians in the side, but they had lived in Yerevan from childhood, so they had adopted the spirit of the people.

“Players from the south are more skilful, more technical, even if it is bad for the team as a collective. You have to stick them to each other.”

That process of sticking the players to each other, of creating a cohesive unit in which they can express their individual ability, probably began under the former Sunderland midfielder and Chelsea manager Ian Porterfield, who took charge in 2006 and oversaw 10 games before his death from cancer the following year.

Although just two were wins, what was significant was that only nine goals were conceded.

Minasyan had served as Porterfield’s assistant and took over from him as caretaker. “The results do not suddenly come out of the blue,” he said. “We have many young players who have earned the coaches’ trust and have a clear understanding of what needs to be done.

“Our football is based on mutual trust. Everyone has the same approach, be it the coaches, the players, the Football Federation of Armenia or our team doctors. We are a whole and healthy mechanism.”

The squad is still young, the majority of players in their early 20s, but there is a sense that the clock is ticking, that promise can soon wither if there is not progress towards fulfilment.

Given the nature of the group, and given how important momentum is, Armenia could do with starting to deliver tomorrow.


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Updated: October 9, 2014 04:00 AM