The next installment of Armenia’s World Cup qualifying campaign is almost upon us, as the dangerous Italian side is set to visit Hrazdan Stadium in Yerevan on Fri., Oct 12. Armenia has just the one fixture during this international break while Italy will return from Yerevan to play Denmark in Milan on Tues., Oct 16. Both squads were announced this week and present plenty of talking points in advance of the crucial match in Group B.
As was widely reported after Armenia’s defeat to Bulgaria in Sofia last month, red cards for Marcos Pizzelli and Gevorg Ghazaryan in that game ruled both players out for the visit of Gli Azzurri. The weight of their absence must be borne by the inform Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Yura Movsisyan, each of whom recently picked up player of the month awards and lead the way in scoring in their respective leagues in Ukraine and Russia.
The capable Davit Manoyan and Artur Sarkisov will most likely fill the vacancies in the starting line-up. Both players have featured greatly in recent matches and know Coach Minasyan’s system of play. That continuity in personnel should mitigate the holes left by Pizzelli and Ghazaryan, while the welcome return of experienced midfielder Edgar Manucharyan to the squad following a lengthy six-month injury layoff also bodes well in this time of need.
Another notable absentee will be Sarkis Hovsepyan. The legendary defender and captain retired from international football in the days after the Bulgaria defeat bringing to a close a stellar career that spanned an incredible 131 caps over 20 years. Armenia will be counting on the experienced Robert Arzumanyan to ensure the defense remains focused and organized as Hovsepyan steps away from the team.
Italian Coach Cesare Prandelli’s squad selections are always scrutinized, with his latest offering no exception. Following their 4-0 defeat to Spain in the Euro 2012 final, Prandelli has opted for youth over experience in his recent squads. Aging strike partners Antonio Cassano and Antonio Di Natale have both been omitted this time around, but Prandelli insists their international careers are not over.
Prandelli has chosen to take another look at AC Milan’s El Shaarawy after the teenage forward hit five goals in four games for AC Milan in early season’s play. Mario Balotelli also returns to the fray, but only after Prandelli had a hard think about his inclusion. Balotelli chose to undergo laser eye surgery during the last international break, ensuring he missed the matches versus Bulgaria and Malta. That decision irked Prandelli so much he contemplated omitting the often-troubled striker for this round of games.
In midfield, expect Andrea Pirlo to feature prominently for the Italians. Pirlo, the veteran player of Milan and Juventus, is still a major component in the middle of the park for Prandelli and has been quoted as wanting to continue playing up to the finals tournament in Brazil, even though he’ll be 35 years of age when the tournament rolls around.
In defense, Angelo Ogbonna pulled out of the squad on Monday as he is struggling with a prostate gland problem. AC Milan defender Ignazio Abate is suffering from a bout of the flu, but should be cleared to play on Friday. Another notable inclusion is Domenico Criscito. The Zenit St. Petersburg defender was not part of Prandelli’s Euro 2012 plans after being placed under investigation by authorities prior to the tournament. He rejoins the squad after being cleared of match fixing allegations while he was a member of Genoa.
The importance of this home fixture versus Italy cannot be overstated. A larger than usual crowd is expected to welcome the visitors to the newly renovated Hrazdan stadium where avoiding defeat is a must for Armenia. If Armenia’s star players can translate recent good form for their club sides onto the international stage, the home team should pose plenty of problems for their illustrious visitors.