The much anticipated UEFA Nations League kicks off this week. The league is the UEFA’s attempt to bring more relevance to international football in Europe and reduce, if not eliminate, the international friendly matches which tend to be drab events that offer little excitement and poor value for money for supporters. Club football has recently positioned itself as top dog, with the Champions League and Europa League securing massive TV sponsorships and fan interest. In fact, the Europa League was the result of a successful rebranding of the old UEFA Cup Winner’s Cup. The Nations League is effectively the same treatment for the international game.
The format and schedule of the tournament was previously discussed on the Weekly (click here for a refresher). The key takeaway from an Armenian point of view is news that a new path to European Championship qualification exists through the Nations League. There are 55 member countries in UEFA, and typically, it is those at the northern end of the rankings that secure qualification to the finals tournament. Historically that tournament had 16 berths, but it recently has been expanded to 24. What the Nations League now provides is a guaranteed berth for one country from those ranked from 40 to 55 in Europe.
Playing in League D of the tournament, Armenia has been drawn into a group with Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Gibraltar. Armenia’s immediate goal will be to navigate six match days over the next ten weeks and ensure they top the group to advance to the playoffs. The outright winner of those playoffs, which will be held in March 2020, will secure the guaranteed League D berth at the Euro 2020 finals.
09.06.2018 Armenia vs. Liechtenstein
09.09.2018 Macedonia vs. Armenia
10.13.2018 Armenia vs. Gibraltar
10.16.2018 Armenia vs. Macedonia
11.16.2018 Gibraltar vs. Armenia
11.19.2018 Liechtenstein vs. Armenia
The opening pair of fixtures will be Vardan Minasyan’s first foray into competitive football with the national team since his return as manager; he was reinstated in April 2018. Minasyan previously guided Armenia through its most successful period since independence, where the team peaked at 30 in the FIFA rankings. There are high hopes that the talented manager can produce more of the same this time around. Managers in recent years have been poor and inconsistent with the team that currently has a FIFA ranking of 100.
On paper, Armenia has received a favorable draw. Gibraltar—a relatively new team— is ranked 55 by UEFA and 195 by FIFA. They only began competing in 2016, and since that time, it has been pretty challenging. Recent form shows six losses from their last seven matches. Liechtenstein is ranked 50 by UEFA and 180 by FIFA. Similarly, their most recent seven matches have seen a solitary victory and six losses. If approached with the professionalism that is required, Armenia should hope to secure maximum points from the four matches scheduled against Gibraltar and Liechtenstein. As for Malta, we cannot forget how Armenia fell to the European country at home a number of years ago. Attractive matchups are very well when assessed on paper;performing to potential is a prerequisite to securing the maximum points.
Macedonia is ranked 41 by UEFA and 70 by FIFA. Macedonia’s FIFA ranking has jumped from 162 to 70 in the last couple of years thanks to a terrific run of form at the end of their last World Cup qualifying campaign. The team is undefeated in its last 7 matches, the majority of which were competitive fixtures and against strong opposition. They are definitely the team to watch in the group and Armenia’s main rival for that top spot. From a historic head-to-head standpoint, there is nothing between the sides. Six matches played, two wins a piece and two draws, along with 11 goals-for and goals-against for each team.
Armenia is ranked 44 by UEFA and 100 by FIFA. Over the last seven matches, Armenia has recorded only one loss. Those fixtures were mostly friendly matches against lower ranked teams. Not much stock can be taken from friendly internationals, a reminder of the necessity of the Nations League. Armenia’s ranking could be a blessing in disguise, however. After all, it is better to be the big fish in a small pond in this case. Being a strong team in League D gives Armenia more opportunity for success than if it were ranked only five places higher by UEFA and drawn into League C.
Categorizing the group of four countries as two strong sides and two weaker sides highlights some interesting points of emphasis. It goes without saying that the fixtures against Macedonia are the make or break fixtures, matches where a clean sheet and three points at home will be coveted and a strong defensive performance away from home will be paramount. The remaining four fixtures carry the added pressure of being expected wins. Not only that, but wins where every goal and clean sheet will count in what might be a deep look down the list of tiebreaker permutations at the end of it all. Slipping up in any one of the four expected wins should be unthinkable for Armenia, and sharpness in front of goal against those sides who pack the defense may be the determining factor between success and failure.
In terms of team news, Minasyan will have to solve some interesting challenges in his line-up. Kamo Hovhannisyan, a regular in the right side of defense is a notable absentee due to injury. Gaël Andonian and Levon Airapetian are also experienced defenders that will not feature. The re-introduction of Karlen Mkrtchyan in recent matches is a positive for Armenia. Having a defensive-minded midfielder such as Mkrtchyan protecting the backline is added insurance at the back that can set a foundation for the attack and counterattack. Set pieces are always key, and running a tight ship when defending corners and free kicks is essential. How often do teams lament the concession of a cheap free kick at the edge of the box only for it to end up in the back of the net moments later? The attention to detail on set pieces and team shape is something a strong manager with clear ideas can shore up quickly. Good managers are often described as the glue that keep an otherwise flawed team together and actually functioning well as a unit. This is where Minasyan has proved his worth in the past and must earn his salt once again.
A new competition, the second coming of Minasyan, and a priceless Euro 2020 berth as the proverbial carrot on a stick—Armenia must put its best foot forward immediately. With such a short format in the group stage, nothing else will do.
- The UEFA rankings that are quoted are those at the time of the Nations League draw in December 2017.
- Armenia has secured a new kit deal with manufacturer Macron;players will be donning the new kits this week.
- Teams in League D receive $500,000 solidarity fee and an additional $500,000 will be awarded to the group winners.
- Armenia’s squad boasts an average age of 26.5 years with a healthy mix of experience and youthfulness.
- Azerbaijan has been drawn in one of the other groups in League D. If both Armenia and Azerbaijan top their respective groups, there is a chance they’ll meet in the playoffs. This could be an interesting storyline as both countries are deliberately kept apart when qualification groups are drawn because of their ongoing conflict.
Squad: Arsen Beglaryan, Aram Ayrapetyan, Anatoly Aivazov, Hrayr Mkoyan, Varazdat Haroyan, Taron Voskanyan, Hovhannes Hambardzumyan, Hayk Ishkhanyan, André Calisir, Armen Manucharyan, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (Capt.), Marcos Pizzelli, Gevorg Ghazaryan, Karlen Mkrtchyan, Aras Özbiliz, Artak Yedigaryan, Edgar Malakyan, Tigran Barseghyan, Rumyan Hovsepyan, Gor Malakyan, Erik Vardanyan, Artur Sarkisov, Ivan Yagan
Manager: Vardan Minasyan