More teams than ever have genuine title aspirations as the new Armenian season kicks off on Saturday, but FC Pyunik are unlikely to give up their seven-year monopoly on the crown without a mighty battle.
An unexpected decision to concentrate on youth development led many to predict that Pyunik's six-year spell as Armenian champions would come to an end in 2008. However, their inexperienced squad showed what could be achieved through a combination of raw energy and desire, with right-back Sargis Hovsepyan, 36, and 20-year-old midfielder Henrik Mkhitaryan running the show.
It took a 2-1 play-off victory against FC Ararat Yerevan to settle the title after the two sides finished level on 59 points at the end of the season, but Pyunik prevailed, and coach Vardan Minasyan is targeting a double this time round. "We want to win the league and the Armenian Cup as well," he said. "It will not be easy but we are not afraid of what lies ahead."
Five sides are angling to deny Pyunik on both fronts, with Ararat perhaps the least credible rivals, having lost seven first-team players since last season. Coach Ashot Kirakosyan has not given up hope, though, and said: "We lost a number of key players but are still strong enough with a mix of experienced competitors and young players who want to achieve more."
'Time to win something'
FC MIKA have banked on foreign talent, bringing in Croatian coach Ivo Šušak and a raft of new players, including former Real Madrid CF trainees Pedro López and Ulises Montenegro Cano. "It's time to win something," said MIKA director Armen Petikyan. "We are working very professionally and our newcomers feel comfortable so there is nothing to disturb us."
FC Banants, like Pyunik, have chosen to bank on young talent under respected coach Armen Gyulbudaghyants, who has improved the atmosphere in the team and adopted new attacking tactics since taking over towards the end of last season. FC Gandzasar Kapan, who finished third last year, also fancy their chances as do FC Ulis Yerevan in what should be the most competitive Armenian campaign yet.
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