Armenia opened the 2013 international season with a 1:1 draw against Luxembourg at the Stade Georges Pompidou in Valence, France on Feb. 5. Luxembourg’s experienced midfielder Mario Mutsch found the net on the volley after 14 minutes of play, and Edgar Manucharyan replied for Armenia with a header on 43 minutes to restore parity entering the break. Although Armenia dominated play and created plenty of chances in the second half, they were unable to add to the score sheet, and their opening match of the year ended in a disappointing draw.
Just as Coach Minasyan had done last year, an experimental team was run out for the first match of the season. International debuts were handed to Artem Khatchaturov and Norayr Aslanyan, players who recently became eligible for selection, while Karen Muradyan and Taron Voskanian were also introduced into the fray in the hope of establishing themselves in the side.
The chosen venue for this match has received a certain amount of criticism in the media. The standard of playing surface and lack of television coverage were at the center of the backlash. The match was played in wet conditions, on a bumpy surface, and in front of a sparse crowd. A grainy internet feed and radio broadcast were the only broadcast options available and even those were intermittent. Torrential rain during the first half was seemingly to blame for the spotty coverage. Taking all of this into account, the setup was hardly conducive to attractive football or pleasing to Armenia’s worldwide fan base.
The playing surface also brought an element of risk into play. With crucial World Cup qualifiers on the horizon, injuries can have toll on Armenia. Granted, injuries are a part of football, but they can be minimized. Shortly after scoring, Luxembourg’s Mario Mutsch was forced to retire with an unfortunate ankle injury. Armenia cannot afford such injuries with the strong Czech Republic side waiting in the wings.
The town of Valance does hold a little romance for Armenians and Henrikh Mkhitaryan in particular. Henrikh’s father Hamlet spent a number of years there as a player with ASOA Valence in the early nineties, with Henrikh spending much of his early years there and making many friends. With such a large Armenian community in the region, some believed that as many as 8,000 fans would visit the Stade Georges Pompidou. Perhaps the adverse weather conditions and the caliber of Armenia’s opponent (on paper at least) contributed to the weaker attendance figures.
Luxembourg entered the match with a depleted squad of 18 players and on the back of some poor results. With nine of the squad being defenders, perhaps that was a signal of their intent on the night. Many of their key players including Deville, Payal, and Bensi were unavailable through injury and this led Coach Luc Holtz to call a number of youngsters into the squad from the National Football League in Luxembourg. With such an inexperienced squad at his disposal and his veteran foreign based players Joachim and Mutsch only arriving the day before the match, the 1-1 result was all the more commendable for the Red Lions.
Luxembourg employed a defensive setup, maintaining men behind the ball and hoping for some joy on the counter attack. The poor weather conditions and playing surface along with some good goalkeeping proved all the help Holtz’s men would need to grind out the result. Any advantage Armenia brought into the match in terms of skill and enterprise was nullified by the pitch and general conditions of play.
Armenia opened the match brightly, dominating possession but ultimately struggling to fashion a clear opening. The poor playing surface disrupted their usually fluid passing in the final third. Close to the quarter hour mark, a hopeful diagonal ball from Daniel Alves da Mota found Mario Mutsch peeling off his defender into space. Showing terrific concentration and technique the Luxembourg talisman who plies his trade for FC St. Gallen in Switzerland, met the 40-yard pass on the full volley and guided his effort across Berezovsky and into the net. The speculative long range effort seemed to catch the Armenian keeper unaware. The simple move that didn’t initially seem threatening was converted into a shock lead with Mutsch’s quality strike.
In response to falling behind Armenia created a couple of good chances with Özbiliz and Manucharyan coming close to scoring, following creative play from Marcos Pizzelli and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Armenia finally found the equalizer after 43 minutes. A move down the left wing saw Marcos Pizzelli deliver an early cross into the Luxembourg area. Edgar Manucharyan took advantage of the acres of space afforded him as the Luxembourg defense seemed all at sea. Manucharyan ran from the top of the box unopposed and met the ball perfectly, guiding a header to the bottom corner of the net. The match was all square entering half time.
Armenia looked to take the early initiative in the second half. Aras Özbiliz was looking lively down the right and was denied a goal by Jonathon Joubert in the Luxembourg net after a run and shot was beaten away. The follow-up attempt from Aras was also cleared to safety. The pressure was beginning to tell as the Luxembourg players scrambled to deny Armenia space and clog the middle of the park. Luxembourg gave away plenty of free kicks in dangerous areas but Armenia was unable to capitalize.
The finishing in front of goal was also rusty. This could be put down to the pitch or it being the first match of the year. Marcos Pizzelli found himself in a glorious position yards from the Luxembourg goal following a neat exchange at the edge of the box. Joubert was sharp yet again, closing the angle and denying Pizzelli a certain goal. Later on, debutant Aslanyan also found himself with a clear sight of goal. He opened his body towards the goal in an attempt to curl the ball home but he snatched at the chance and skied the ball into the stands. For all their dominance, Armenia was still susceptible to the counter attack. Luxembourg also threatened to score as the half wore on. Luxembourg’s U21 striker David Turpel came close on one occasion and Da Mota was also in the mix late-on but Berezovsky stood firm.
Although the result may not be desirable, the performance was workmanlike and the match was effectively an exercise in introducing new players into the setup. Coach Minasyan is still tinkering with his defense, and after this latest experiment he is one match closer to knowing his best starting back-four.
As a debutant, Norayr Aslanyan played well, showing a desire for touches by making himself available as an outlet on numerous occasions following his introduction. Artem Khatchaturov is also a key addition to the squad. His size and aerial ability are skills that Armenia needs as they look to improve their defending under the high ball. Assuming he works his way into the side, it will be important to be partnered in central defense by a player that compliment what Khatchaturov brings to the table. There is still plenty of work to be done and plenty of questions that still need answering. Up next for Armenia is a match versus Turkmenistan on March 22, followed by the much sterner test from the Czech Republic’s visit to Yerevan on March 26.
Armenia: R. Berezovsky, J. Hambardzumyan (46’ Artak Yedigaryan), R. Arzumanyan (88’ T. Voskanian), A. Khatchaturov (YC)(80’ H. Mkoyan), K. Hovhannisyan, K. Muradyan (78’ K. Mkrtchyan), H. Mkhitaryan, A. Özbiliz, M Pizzelli, G. Ghazaryan (61’ N. Aslanyan), E. Manucharyan (72’ A. Sarkisov)
Manager: V. Minasyan
Luxembourg: J. Joubert, C. Philipps, E. Hoffmann, T Schnell, G. Bettmer (56’ D. Turpel), L. Jans (YC), M. Jänisch, M. Mutsch (23’ R. Peters), T. Laterza (63’ M. Martino), A. Joachim (G. Blaise), D. Da Mota (84’ D. Collette)
Manager: Luc Holtz