Mkhitaryan earning a place among the elite
The name Henrikh Mkhitaryan may not trip off the tongue for fans in the West, but the gifted playmaker certainly does not struggle for recognition in his native Armenia. A fully fledged star in his homeland, he is equally revered across eastern Europe and especially in Ukraine, where he has become as synonymous with Shakhtar Donetsk as long-serving coach Mircea Lucescu, former Barcelona stopper Dmytro Chyrgrynskiy and the club's exciting array of Brazilians. At 23, his reputation is now soaring thanks to an unerring eye for goal and his consistently excellent displays, all of which he dedicates to a father who passed away too soon.
Snapped up by Shakhtar in 2010, Mkhitaryan did not have to wait long to make his mark at the Donbass Arena, tying down a spot in midfield despite fierce competition for places. He proved an instant success and has followed a steadily upward trajectory since agreeing the move, seemingly reaching a whole new level this season. Above all, he caught the eye with a pair of goals against Nordsjaelland in Shakhtar's opening UEFA Champions League encounter last month, but he can also pride himself on his 14 goals from ten appearances in all competitions this term. Unsurprisingly, he has become a vital piece of the jigsaw for Lucescu, and the man who previously coached the likes of Ronaldo and Roberto Baggio has not been shy expressing his admiration. "Mkhitaryan has a great future," the erstwhile Inter Milan coach has said. "He's an exceptional player."
Life has not always been easy for the burgeoning talent, however. Originally from the Kentron district of Yerevan, Mkhitaryan's childhood was rocked by the premature death of his father Hamlet Mkhitaryan – formerly a leading striker for Armenia's most popular club, Ararat Yerevan – due to a brain tumour. Henrikh was just seven at the time and, following in his father's footsteps, had already found a place in the youth set-up of the capital's other frontline outfit, FC Pyunik.
Over the next 11 seasons, he rose through the ranks until he made his first-team debut aged 17 in 2006. Mkhitaryan had arrived, and he helped the club sweep up four consecutive Armenian titles while notching 30 goals in 70 outings from a withdrawn midfield role. International recognition was swift in coming too, and he collected his first Armenia cap in a friendly against Panama on 14 January 2007.
Impressive as that progress was, his swift rise was about to pick up even more steam. Mkhitaryan left Pyunik for Metalurh Donetsk in 2009 and he had barely unpacked his bags when he was handed the armband a few weeks into his stay, thus becoming the team's youngest ever captain at 21. Of course, the proximity of such a tantalising prospect could not fail to stir Metalurh's illustrious neighbours, and Shakhtar made their move the following season.
The cross-town transfer might have intimidated many a lesser player but, blessed with excellent technique, Mkhitaryan soon proved his worth alongside the Pitmen's Brazilian magicians. So smooth was his transition, in fact, that the youngster was named the club's Premier League player of the season for 2011/12, in which they lost just one of 30 matches.
In short, Mkhitaryan has come of age, and Lucescu has rewarded him with a position further forward this term, placing him in front of the midfield and close to the forwards in an attacking 4-2-4 formation. The new role allows the Armenian international to race on to the crosses served up by Douglas Costa or Alex Teixeira, and more often than not he buries them – with a distinct preference for the top right-hand corner. "In theory, my role is to place myself behind the striker, but the coach has allowed me freedom to roam," he said. "I'm starting to score more goals because we're playing a more attacking style. My team-mates set up great chances for me and I try to be as clinical as I can."
From lows to highs
Those finishing skills have likewise served him well on international duty, and he racked up six goals during the UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying campaign. Capped 28 times overall, he is already Armenia's joint-second highest scorer of all time, his eight strikes putting him level with Gevorg Ghazaryan, and Arthur Petrossian's record of 11 goals in 70 appearances appears destined to fall soon.
Mkhitaryan's talents do not end there either, and the level-headed schemer can claim to speak Armenian, Russian, English, French and Portuguese. His command of the game is easy to understand in any language, however, and as a natural leader he understands that the pressure on his shoulders is only set to grow. He will come under the microscope in Shakhtar's Champions League trip to Juventus this evening, for example, just as he will when qualifying resumes for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, with Armenia drawn together with Italy, Denmark and Czech Republic. That represents a daunting array of challenges, but Mkhitaryan is unlikely to be flustered. After all, he has already experienced life's painful lows – and now he is ready for the highs.