Armenia's footballing credentials have been enhanced in recent years and after watching the senior national team come perilously close to reaching the UEFA EURO 2012 play-offs, Rafael Nazaryan's Under-21 side are also causing a stir.
Armenia won their opening two UEFA European U21 Championship qualifying Group 3 matches against Montenegro and Andorra, before holding 2011 final tournament participants Czech Republic to a 1-1 draw in Uherske Hradiste. That result leaves Nazaryan's charges joint top of the section going into Friday's return fixture in Yerevan, before the visit, on 15 November, of a Wales side who sit a point behind having played a game more.
With a play-off berth a realistic possibility, coach Nazaryan has revised his initial objective of merely preparing players for the senior team. "First of all our task is to get players ready to play well for the seniors," he said. "We call them up to the U21 side to get to know them better and prepare them for battles at senior level but sometimes goals change during a tournament.
"Besides the main goal, which I have already mentioned, we will try and finish as high as possible in our qualifying campaign," said Nazaryan, who is also assistant coach of the senior squad. "
We have a good team and results have proved that. So why can't we finish first? Of course, it's not an easy mission but the harder the target, the greater the joy when you reach it. Before the qualifying stage we didn't have such a goal; now we do."
The growth of local youth academies has been central to Armenia's recent rise, with the likes of Karlen Mkrtchyan, Gevorg Ghazaryan, Marcos Pizzelli and Henrik Mkhitaryan earning transfers to Ukrainian club FC Metalurh Donetsk – and Mkhitaryan later signing for UEFA Champions League contenders FC Shakhtar Donetsk. According to U21 captain Artak Edigaryan, the influence of successful senior players is pivotal in providing inspiration for Armenia's younger generation.
"There's a good atmosphere in our team," said the FC Pyunik defender. "The players and coaches are only thinking about the job that needs doing. We are all really eager to get results. The senior team have set a perfect example and now we have to try and repeat their success. All the players know each other well and this improves our understanding on the pitch."
Despite their impressive start, however, Nazaryan remains wary of the threat posed by the Czech Republic. "The Czechs are the group favourites," he said. "I've said it before and I still think this way, but sometimes in football the favourites don't win. Wales are no weak opponents either. To get positive results we'll have to give it our best but we already know the taste of success, so we'll play for victory in both matches. We have talented players and I hope they'll be in the senior team soon."
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