Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Arsenal's Armenian in Azerbaijan
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Being Armenian, Henrikh Mkhitaryan faces restrictions on his travel plans. The abnormality here is, despite his nationality, the attacking-midfielder will be permitted to enter Azerbaijan to play in the UEFA Europa League final with Arsenal later this month.
Why would there have been strife? In short, the governmental bodies concerning Azerbaijan and Armenia aren’t on good terms. There’s been trouble since the late 1980s due to a territorial dispute. The two nations stake a claim to Nagorno-Karabakh, a mountainous forest area. While seen on the map as modern-day Azerbaijan, some sources indicate the area is governed by an independent body, the Republic of Artsakh; whom are more aligned with Armenian culture. After all, the people there predominantly speak Armenian. It has its own flag, yet it largely resembles the Armenian one. The Azerbaijani government, as a result, enforced strict rules.
The state has banned Armenians from passage. There’s no way to gain entry other than requesting for it specially, such as playing in the Europa League final. Conversely, Azerbaijanis can freely enter Armenia without the need as much as a tourist visa. Maybe their own government would have something to say about their travels, but heading in that direction is somewhat easier.
Arsenal’s league run-in fell to pieces. It was only the Europa League ties against Napoli and Valencia provided fans with glory, but a fifth-place finish in the Premier League isn’t what the club would have desired. Over the last four games across all competitions, the team did, however, put together traces of consistency. Three wins a draw isn’t the best form but certainly not the worst. The key point? Mkhitaryan played in all four games.
The Armenian national team captain came on in the second leg against Valencia. He kept up the pressure in place of Mesut Ozil, ensuring Arsenal remained professional as well as creative. His ball for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang resulted in Arsenal’s seventh goal in the tie.
This landed him a full 90-minute outing in the following Premier League game against Burnley at Turf Moor at the weekend. The Lancashire air may have re-energised Mkhitaryan as he emerged looking fresh and hungry. He was accurate, on-target with his shots and constantly on the ball. This sent a message to Unai Emery, Mkhitaryan was a key part in a hard-fought 3-1 victory.
The dreaded Europa League comes with the overbearing shackles of long-distance commutes and pretty unreasonable scheduling for English teams, Said sides hop-skip-and-jump across the continent in order to play in unusual conditions, all-while fulfilling domestic fixtures in between. For once, in the final, Emery is quashed by the standard dilemmas, no more: “he’s tired from the trip to Ukraine/I need him for the game against Tottenham on Sunday”. The Spaniard can pick from a fully rested team, free from fatigue or future schedule planning. That includes Mkhitaryan.
The Armenian national team top goalscorer was prolific against Chelsea in the away game, scoring Arsenal’s first then assisting Alex Iwobi for the second. He missed the home tie via a foot injury. When fit and in form, he starts these games. Mkhitaryan's already proven that he can get around the Chelsea defence, Arsenal needs him here.
While customs staff may take a little longer processing his entry in comparison to his teammates, he will be allowed in. This hasn’t always been the case. Arsenal played in Azerbaijan before this season, as their group paired them off against Qarabag FK. Mkhitaryan was not permitted entry for that game.
Unai Emery should feel no pressure, political or otherwise, when considering his squad selection. Football should never be used as a vehicle to push regimes or agendas by exclusivity. Arsenal's manager should select the attacking midfielder because he gives The Gunners a realistic chance to win a trophy and qualify for next season's Champions League.