After a spectacular showing during the qualifying stages of the 2012 European Cup qualifiers, the national team of Armenia quickly emerged from a minnow to a mid-European side. Despite amazing performances from veterans such as keeper Roman Berezovsky and defender Sargis Hovsepyan combined with the influx of youngsters and newcomers like expert goal scorer Yura Movsisyan and the blistering speed of Artur Sarkisov, the persistent side was trumped in Dublin, by the more experienced Irish side.
As a result of the Cinderella-esque run, hope and excitement for the Armenian people in Armenia and the diaspora are looking ahead to the qualifications for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Along the way, however, the Armenians will play challenging friendlies to prepare themselves for a rigorous group which includes the ever prominent Italian team along with the Danes, who topped their Euro 2012 qualification. Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Malta are the other three teams that round up the group.
Recent news has been nothing but positive for the Highlanders, as they are called. The latest FIFA Rankings have the Armenians at number 40, the highest ever in the nation's short history, and also 25th in Europe. The debut of Aras Ozibiliz, born in Turkey and playing for AJAX in Holland, is also highly anticipated along with the commitment from Norair Mamedov, who turned down the invite to play for the next two friendlies due to his club schedule and feeling that he needs to improve his skills before joining the senior side.
The upcoming schedule for the squad includes games on back-to-back days against the physical Serbian team on the Feb. 28, followed by the Canadian side on the Feb. 29. Both games will take place in Larnaka, Cyorus. In August, the Armenians will host the Belarusian side with rumors of a game against the Greeks in Austria during the month of may.
A lot of questions need to be answered during those friendly matches before the qualifying cycle begins. For one, with the additions of Ozibiliz and Mamedov, to go with already established players such as Movsisyan, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Marcos Pizzelli, Edgar Manucharyan, Artur Sarkisov and Gevorg Ghazaryan the front half of the pitch is already established with talent. Only question for Coach Vardan Minasyan is to figure out how to keep the players happy and focus on what tandems have the best chemistry.
The biggest question, however, will remain on the defensive side of the pitch with Hovsepyan, who leads the nation with 125 caps at the age of 39, and Berezovsky, 37, are nearing the end of their careers, yet remain the leaders of the defense. Hovsepyan, alone, has more caps than all of the defenders on the roster (54) for the next two friendlies combined. Experience behind Berezovsky is also greatly lacking. That was greatly proven during in Dublin after the controversial red card given to the veteran keeper. A crucial own goal followed by another mistake made by, 20-year-old backup keeper, Arsen Petrosyan was the Achilles heel for the side.
If Coach Minasyan can get the team to continue to buy into his system and get the defensive side of the pitch on the same page, there is no telling how well the Armenians might do during qualifiers, despite being in such a talented group.