Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Is Shakhtar Donetsk Midfielder Europe's Next Big Superstar?

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Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Is Shakhtar Donetsk Midfielder Europe's Next Big Superstar?
Photo courtesy of totalfootball.am

Henrikh Mkhitaryan has finally arrived at the elite end of the world football scene, scoring his first UEFA Champions League goals, as Shakhtar Donetsk beat FC Nordsjaelland 2-0 at the Donbass Arena.

The 23-year-old Armenia international—who plays in the hole—scored twice to give his side three points in their Group E opener.

Both goals showed good movement, awareness and finishing prowess, a trait which has long been typical of the burgeoning Mkhitaryan (highlights here).

It was a performance which capped off a perfect start to the season for Mkhitaryan, who's scored a staggering 12 goals and made five assists in just nine league games, and now he has 14 goals from 10 matches in all competitions.

Not very well known outside of Ukraine and Armenia, Mkhitaryan has long been touted as a future superstar by those who have seen him play, and this term it seems as if he's about to spectacularly live up to the hype.

A quick look at his Wikipedia page will show his impressive pedigree, with the attacking midfielder having been a key player for his clubs since he broke onto the scene as a 17-year-old back in 2006.

He started out with Armenian giants Pyunik Yerevan, making an impressive 12 appearances in the 2006 season before following that up with 12 goals in 24 league matches the next campaign.

In three seasons at Pyunik, before earning a move to Ukraine with Donetsk's second team Metalurh Donetsk, a 20-year-old Mkhitaryan had racked up 89 appearances, scoring 35 goals and becoming an influential part of the side that won four consecutive Premier League titles in a row.

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By the time of his transfer to Metalurh, Mkhitaryan had ended his last season at Pyunik with 13 goals in 13 games.

The Armenian spent just over one season at Metalurh, instantly becoming a key part of manager Nikolay Kostov's plans, as he hit 14 goals from 38 games in his debut campaign, taking up exactly the same role which saw him have so much success in Armenia.

And it was that level of performance—which inspired a poor Metalurh side to a respectable eighth-place finish as well as the final of the 2010 Ukrainian Cup—that saw Mkhitaryan named as captain for the club's Europa League qualifier against FC Partizan Minsk.

Which, at 21 years of age, meant he became the youngest captain in the club's history.

And by this time, he was already a well-established international, earning over 10 caps for his country, as well as a very highly regarded talent in Armenia, having won the 2009 Armenian Player of the Year award.

Such a rapid rise drew the attention of Ukrainian champions and European power Shakhtar Donetsk, with manager Mircea Lucescu on the lookout for a burgeoning, young attacking talent to freshen up his aging squad.

It was a move which proved a great success, though not initially for Mkhitaryan.

Shakhtar successfully defended their title and won the Ukrainian Cup and Supercup, while they also reached the Champions League quarterfinals before being knocked out by eventual winners, FC Barcelona.

Mkhitaryan played a bit-part role that campaign, clocking up just 17 league appearances and 27 overall, finishing the term with four goals.

It wasn't a great season for the Armenian, as he struggled to come to terms with playing for such a big club, but his role gave good competition for regular starter Jadson and ultimately turned out to be a huge learning curve.

As the following season began, Mkhitaryan exploded out of the blocks, scoring 10 goals and making seven assists in 27 league games, but most importantly, he dictated play in the final third for his team, linking midfield with attack, running the channels, stretching defences, getting on the end of chances, etc.

In essence, he was the complete package going forward, which drove Shakhtar to another defence of their league title and Ukrainian Cup crown.

And it was perhaps this 2011-12 campaign which has been his biggest learning curve to date.

Mkhitaryan could've had double the number of assists last season had Luiz Adriano and Eduardo been better finishers, while he could have also doubled his own goal tally had he too been more composed in and around the penalty area.

It's a statement that seems to have been realised more so by Mkhitaryan himself than anybody else, with the Armenian yet again continuing his upward climb.

His goals against FC Nordsjaelland in the Champions League epitomised the new Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a talented star with the composure to finish off almost any chance given to him.

Compare his goals already this season to his chances last term, and it's clear to see the Shakhtar talisman has all the makings of an elite-level player.

The top clubs in the sport are always on the lookout for prolific players from deeper positions, and in the multilingual Mkhitaryan (who speaks five languages including English) there could lie a ready-made solution.

Having finally had the composure to score on the biggest club stage, it appears the Armenian is finally about to come of age.

He's racked up over 200 top-flight appearances, lived with hype for six years and at long last could become the next big, prodigious talent to emerge from the depths of Eastern Europe.

Remember the name—Henrikh Mkhitaryan—you'll be seeing a lot more of him this season.

 

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