Having snatched a UEFA Europa League place from a poor campaign last year, Armenia's FC Banants want to make amends, with captain Arthur Voskanyan aiming "to improve our international standing and cheer up the fans".
A 10-0 aggregate defeat by FC Salzburg in the UEFA Cup first qualifying round and a fifth-place finish in the eight-team Armenian league represented a poor return for the Yerevan side, who had registered top-three finishes in the preceding six campaigns. As the 2008 season closed, club president Sargis Israelyan concluded: "Undoubtedly this campaign hasn't been good enough, so we have to make radical changes."
The first such adjustment came last October when 42-year-old Armen Gyulbudaghyants replaced Danish coach Kim Splidsboel. His subsequent success in leading Banants to the Armenian Cup final earned his charges a spot in the UEFA Europa League first qualifying round. The final itself was lost 1-0 to national champions FC Pyunik on 9 May.
Third in the top flight, or Bardzraguyn khumb, after 14 games of the new, 2009 season, Gyulbudaghyants has already revived the club with an increased emphasis on young talent. "We have to work with and improve our own local players," he said. "It won't be easy, but with experienced team-mates around them, these 18 to 20-year-olds will find their feet. We have to be good enough for the Europa League as well as the Armenian league."
Armenian international Hamlet Mkhitaryan's return home after a spell in Iran with Rah Ahan FC should help in that respect. "The squad has its own style and character, giving us hope that we will be good enough on the international stage," said the 35-year-old, whose side kick off their first qualifying round tie at home against NK Široki Brijeg tonight. "His team-mates can learn a lot from him, but he isn't going to be only our signing," added Gyulbudaghyants.
"We have players from Ghana, Zimbabwe, Ivory Coast, Russia and Belarus on trial, so I hope some of them can help us towards our main goal – getting as far as we can in the Europa League," continued the coach. Banants have fallen at the first hurdle in six of their seven UEFA Cup seasons, but captain Voskanyan insisted: "We are aiming to qualify for the next round."
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