Looking at recent statistics can be a dispiriting experience for FC Pyunik's Armenian Premier League rivals. The Yerevan side have won the last ten domestic titles – and 13 of the 19 crowns since independence.
The 20th post-Soviet Armenian season begins at the weekend, with Pyunik once more favourites to prevail. The club's plethora of home-grown players had been expected to be picked off by other teams during the winter, but in the event they suffered only two departures: defender Vahagn Minasyan, now at FC Mika, and goalkeeper Artur Lesko.
Belarusian keeper Lesko has returned to his home country with FC Minsk, with Pyunik still to find a recognised No1 to replace him. To compound matters, midfielder Karlen Mkrtchyan sustained a serious knee injury on trial with Russian team FC Kuban Krasnodar, yet boss Vardan Minasyan is adamant the club have talent to spare.
"Whatever the squad, Pyunik always have the highest goals," said the Pyunik and Armenia coach. "Our strategy will not change, we remain committed to young players. Several more have joined us to increase our bench options. Maybe some will earn a starting place, it depends on them. Only the best will play, regardless of experience."
Last season a mere point separated Pyunik from second-placed FC Banants, though there were significant differences in terms of philosophy. At the time, Banants had drafted in a raft of foreign players, but many have now moved on, with a renewed commitment to academy graduates bringing them more in line with Pyunik's thinking.
Armenian Under-21 international defender Artashes Arakelyan has bolstered the squad, although new Serbian signing Dragan Dragutinović has already been sidelined for five months by injury. "We fought for the title until the very end of last season," said Banants president Sargis Israyelan. "Our team remains the same but for a few changes and we have the same goals – to compete for every domestic trophy."
Mika, FC Impuls and FC Gandzasar Kapan look the most likely to compete with Pyunik and Banants for the top positions in the eight-team table. Mika boast new acquisition Vahagn Minasyan and fellow international Hrayr Mkoyan at the heart of their defence, yet have lost Ivorian striker Boti Demel to Rosenborg BK.
Impuls's winter recruits include Armenia forward Hovannes Goaryan, late of FC BATE Borisov, while Gandzasar have former FC Kilikia coach Avraam Hashmanyan in charge. FC Shirak, meanwhile, are led by former Pyunik boss Samvel Petrosyan who wants his side to push for a European place.
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