The annual winter break for international soccer is almost over. The first international friendlies of the year are scheduled for February, and World Cup qualifying resumes at the end of March. Armenia is scheduled to play Luxembourg in a friendly on Feb. 5 in Valence, France. This will be followed by another friendly versus Turkmenistan on March 22 in Yerevan. These matches serve as a warm-up exercise for both players and management as they look to fine-tune tactics and continue the good form shown at the end of last year in advance of the crunch World Cup qualifying match versus Czech Republic on March 26, also in Yerevan. So before the 2013 schedule begins, here is a look back at how Armenia fared in 2012 and what lays ahead for them in 2013.
Flash back a year to the beginning of 2012. Armenia had come to terms with narrowly missing out on the Euros and began focusing their attention on adding to their squad of players and building towards their next World Cup qualifying campaign. Expectations in the media and with fans as well as within the camp were high. Armenia’s FIFA ranking was peaking, reaching as high as 41 in the world. The team had also developed an identity. It had young, skillful players, and a bright coach, and valued possession, good passing, and movement, while also displaying a deadly touch on the counter attack.
But was Armenia punching above its weight? Was the team outperforming their station on the international stage, and were these expectations unwarranted? Or was Armenia’s climb up the world rankings a result of an improvement in the team on a fundamental level? With greater expectations comes greater scrutiny on performances and, more importantly, results. Armenia had shown it could compete at a high level, but now their next goal was to do that on a consistent basis.
Armenia’s squad was bolstered at the end of 2011 with the arrival of Aras Özbiliz. That bode well for the team as he settled into the side very well at the beginning of 2012, establishing him as a regular starter. He joined the likes of Mkhitaryan, Ghazaryan, Pizzelli, and Movsisyan, adding another dynamic to an already potent strike force.
Injuries and father time would also play a big role in Armenia’s results. Edgar Manucharyan and Levon Airapetyan were absent at various times during the year with serious injuries, and Movsisyan struggled with an injury in the Italy match. Also, Sargis Hovsepyan finally hung up his boots after a 20-year career, leaving a hole at right-back that has yet to be nailed down by any of the younger players.
Armenia’s results from 2012 were up and down. From nine games played, of which six were friendlies and three were qualifiers, Armenia recorded four wins and five losses. Two of those losses were important qualifying matches. In fact, the only consistency seen from Armenia in 2012 was their ability to be inconsistent. The win one, lose one story followed them throughout the year.
Having a closer look at the matches, Armenia saw off the challenges of Canada, Kazakhstan, and Lithuania in friendlies and picked up the necessary three points against minnows Malta in an away qualifier. On the flip side, Armenia was beaten by quality opposition such as Italy, Greece, and Serbia, but was also undone by Belarus in a home friendly and Bulgaria in a hostile qualifier away from home.
The Italians are always tough to beat but with three starters missing, the task was made that much more difficult. Armenia produced a spirited display against Gli Azzurri, conceding a harsh penalty in the early stages, drawing level through Mkhitaryan, but ultimately falling short as Italy’s class shone through.
The series of three qualifying results leaves Armenia off the pace in Group B, but not by much. The points lost in Bulgaria were disappointing, but taking a broader perspective on things, an away draw in that match would have been considered a good result. Armenia currently is sitting on three points, with Bulgaria on six. With a draw in Sofia as opposed to a loss, both countries would have sit on four points, Czech Republic on five, with that team being the next visitor to Yerevan.
That is not the case, however; and putting what-ifs aside, fortunately for Armenia, a series of drawn matches in the group means the second place spot is still wide open, a spot that guarantees a play-off berth. That makes the visit of the Czech team to Yerevan in March a key match in determining Armenia’s fate in the group.
It is probably fair to say that Armenia’s play and results as a whole in 2012 was slightly below par. But here is an interesting question, what is par for a team that has made such strides in recent years? The standard of the team’s play has been increasing and as a result expectations have followed suit.
A second-place finish in Group B may be a bridge too far for this team this time around, especially considering the caliber of opposition in the group. Of the teams vying for that second spot, Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and even Denmark all have World Cup pedigree. That is not the say that Armenia cannot find a run of form and results similar to those that saw them threaten the so-called big teams during the last campaign. That is why they play the games, to use the old cliché.
As the opening international matches of 2013 draw near and the excitement and expectations build up around the team once more, it is clear they have a difficult road ahead. If they continue in the vein of 2012 their interest in Group B could dwindle very rapidly. However, if the team can continue to find good performances, add to those some consistent results and the confidence that engenders, Armenia can pose a significant challenge and play an important hand in the outcome of their group.