Can Armenia Still Punch A Ticket To France?

     Two campaigns ago, Armenia were cinderellas in their group, with a chance to qualify for the playoffs on the last matchday as they visited Robbie Keane and the Irish side in Dublin. A controversial red card to keeper, Roman Berezovsky, teamed with mistakes by the backup, who was 18, and an own goal from Valeri Aleksanyan were the catalysts to a 2-1 defeat and elimination. It was a campaign of a start, as they drubbed Slovakia 4-nil on the road en route to finishing with the highest goal total in the group at 22. 

    Last campaign, they finished in fifth place, three behind the second place Danes, two points behind the Czech Republic and losing the tie breaker to Bulgaria. It was quite the roller coaster ride for the small nation as they gave Malta its first qualifying win, at home, but followed it up by drubbing Denmark 4-nil in Copenhagen. At the end of the campaign, Vardan Minasyan resigned from his post to join FC Aktobe in Kazakhstan. 

     Hopes were high for the first major tournament qualification, even moreso when you considered that the European Championship was expanded from 16 to 24 teams, giving eight additional nations a chance for glory. Armenia hired Bernard Challandes, a Swiss coach with boatloads of experience. And the rocky road began.

      Two friendlies in Challandes' native Switzerland were scheduled, against the United Arab Emirates and Algeria to kick off his tenure, prior to a friendly in Germany as the Germans prepped for their trip to Brazil, in which they ended victors. The cycle started with some promise, as the Armenians held on to a 4-3 victory versus the UAE. Algeria, however, was a different story as the Armenians lost 3-1 to the World Cup qualifers, who were eliminated by Germany in extra time.

     The game in Germany was just dismantling, morally and physically. Germany were always favored to win, afterall, they are getting ready to dominate in South America. However, a scoreline of 6-1 was never the guess, with the Armenian side scoring off a spot kick. Injuries, however, dashed Armenian morale, namely to Aras Ozbiliz, the promising midfielder who came up in the prestigious Dutch system. A 2-nil friendly loss in Latvia also followed, bringing Challandes to a 1-3-0 record to start, and a goal differential of -8 (6 scored, 14 allowed). 
     Come the 2016 qualifiers, as Armenia is in a group with Portugal, Sjrbia, Denmark and Albania, the lone five nation group. Top two sides book a ticket to France, while the third slot team earns a playoff ticket prior to booking a ticket to France, or back home. Definitely a doable campaign, the highest possibility of popping their international tournament cherry. 

     Starting off in Copenhagen, and the 4-nil drubbing was definitely on the minds of the Danish players. Armenia were shorthanded coming in, as Ozbilis was scheduled to be out for over six months, and Yura Movsisyan was not ready to go either. The game started with both sides getting a feel, but opened up when Mkhitaryan scored the opener to give the visitors a 1-nil lead in the 50th minute. Mkhitaryan was the target of a physical Danish defense, that forced Challandes to substitute his captain due to injury in the 70th, just five minutes after the Danes pulled even. Since that point, Armenia weren't able to maintain possession, nor were they able to muster up any sort of offense, in an ultimate 2-1 defeat.

     Home to Sjrbia, just over a month later, morale was weary as Mkhitaryan would be joining Movsisyan and Ozbiliz on the injured list, forcing Challandes to start Artur Sarkisov as the lone striker and Brazillian-born Marcos Pizzelli in the role of Mkhitaryan. The visitors were putting all the pressure on the home side, coming close in the 28th minute, forcing a parried save by Roman Berezovsky to keep the hosts even. Weathering the storm seemed to be working, especially when Robert Arzumanyan scored off a rare header in the 73rd minute to open up the books. Looking to hold onto the lead, as opposed to Denmark, seemed like it was going to occur, especially when Sarkisov was pulled down in the box, leading to a spot kick. Pizzelli stepped up, but had his attempt blocked, as well as his rebound. Just stunning as it would've given Armenia a two goal cushion. Sjrbia kept attacking, and were able to break through in the 89th minute and cost the Armenians two points, finishing 1-1. 

     A roadie followed in Portugal, and bunker ball was the name of the game as the visitors needed to keep Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best active player, from putting them out. For over 70 minutes, Armenia was able to keep the hosts even, while creating a few opportunities of her own. Challandes' seemed like his gameplan was actually working and would bear some fruits, as this would be an upset of major proportions. Well, that was until Taron Voskanyan was caught ball watching after Berezovsky parried away a tough shot into the middle of the box. Voskanyan's mental error allowed for the ball to be knocked to the feet of Ronaldo, within a few yards of the goal. Any football fan that knows an iota of the game knew that Ronaldo wasn't going to miss a sitter, and he didn't. Armenia weren't able to muster a response, and dropped to 0-2-1 in the group, with just a single point to its name. 

     A nice break until March was much needed, giving Mkhitaryan and Movsisyan plenty of time to get healthy, and try to get into form. They were good to go as the team flew up to surprising Albania, with Challandes' job on the line. Changing formations from a bunkered 5-4-1 to 4-1-4-1 seemed to pay dividends in the early stages, as a beautiful run by Mkhitaryan led to an own goal in the matches fourth minute, and, for the third time, Armenia was up 1-nil. Yet, again, the team went to playing bunkerball, to a horrible extent, where it didn't seem like they even had four minutes of possession during the final 40 of the half. Some squandered opportunities by the hosts led to the half ending with the same scoreline. The second half was more of the same, until a second yellow to Hovhannes Hambardzumyan opened up the game and Albania were able to notch the equalizer and then, the winner, sending Armenia back empty handed and a 2-1 defeat. Third squandered lead, second leading to a defeat.

    Keeping his word, Challandes resigned as the manager of the national side after the team returned to Yerevan, leading many to believe that the nation needed to focus on building towards the 2018 World Cup cycle in Russia, as they are sitting with a single point and six points behind second and third seeded Denmark and Albania respectively, and eight behind group leading Portugal. A task that isn't easy, but doable, when one considers that Armenia hosts three of the final four matches, with the lone road meeting being in front of an empty stadium against the disappointing Serbian side. 

      With the return of Ozbiliz pending, and the assumption that the new manager will allow Armenia to play its open counter-attacking style that made them solid under Minasyan, anything can happen. Focus needs to be on the June matchup as they host the group leaders in June, prior to a busy September as they visit Sjrbia and host Denmark on the 4th and the 7th. The final match is at home to the Albanians, which could very well be the decisive matchday for the third slot. However, putting themselves in such a predicament means that Armenia will need help and doesn't fully control its own destiny. They need one of Albania or Denmark to go on a skid and give an opportunity to make up the six points, three if you assume Armenia will get the victory.