At the Donbass Arena, they have a tradition of playing music each time Shakhtar’s players score goals. Each track corresponds to the nationality of a scorer. You could hear Brazilian, Ukrainian, Croatian melodies, not to mention this season’s smash hit Sabre Dance, a monumental masterpiece written by Armenian composer Aram Khachaturian. This composition has already been played 3 times since the start of the season thanks to accurate shots by Shakhtar’s and Eastern European rising star Henrikh Mkhitaryan.
Henrikh comes from a football background; his father Hamlet Mkhitaryan was a professional footballer, who plied his trade in Armenia before moving with his family to France in 1989 to continue his playing career. At the age of 7, after his father died of brain tumour, Henrikh returned to Armenia. Henrikh’s mother – Marina Tashchian – is head of national teams department in the Armenian Football Federation. Mkhitaryan’s elder sister – Monica – works at UEFA’s headquarters. Last year, during Michel Platini’s visit to Donetsk to assess the city’s readiness for Euro 2012, she performed the duties of his interpreter. Henrikh Mkhitaryan also knows a thing or two about foreign languages; besides Armenian, Henrikh can speak French, Russian, English and also Portuguese thanks to his 4-month spell at Sao Paulo's youth set-up within the framework of the cooperation between his first club (Pyunik) and Brazilian giants.
Henrikh's sister Monica
The legend has it that a 17-year-old Mkhitaryan attracted Mircea Lucescu’s interest in 2007, when Shakhtar was playing against Armenian high-flyers Pyunik in the Champions League qualifying round. However, Henrikh went on to join another Donetsk-based club Metalurh due to Armenian connections (back then Metalurh was coached by Bulgarian manager Nikolai Kostov who had previously worked at Armenian club Banants). Metalurh and Shakhtar were not the only teams interested in Henrikh’s services; Mkhitaryan was also linked with Dynamo Kyiv, Lille, Lyon, Locomotive Moscow and other clubs, but as Henrikh stated: “For me it was important to play”.
In 2009, Mkhitaryan won fourth consecutive league title with Pyunik, and was named Armenian player of the year. Later the same year, he signed for Metalurh Donetsk. In 2010, at the age of 21, Metalurh’s head coach handed Henrikh the captain’s armband, which underlined Henrikh’s maturity both on and of the football field despite his relatively young age. In one of the recent interviews Shakhtar’s head coach Mircea Lucescu also highlighted the aforementioned feature of Henrikh’s character this time shown at Shakhtar: “Mkhitaryan is a professional footballer through and through. He managed to build his relations with the teammates in the way allowing him to enjoy undisputed authority both on and off the pitch”.
After his impressive first season in Ukraine, Mkhitaryan made the next step in his career by signing for Shakhtar Donetsk in August, 2010. Mircea Lucescu gives his take on Mkhitaryan’s first steps at Shakhtar: “It wasn’t an easy ride for him from the start. The process of his integration was speeded up by Mkhitaryan’s high level of football smartness. His game intelligence corresponding to the present-day Shakhtar level is, perhaps, the most valuable quality of this player. Plus the speed, power and skills that Henrikh was generously gifted by nature with and which he developed in training. Owing to the totality of these virtues, he consistently belongs to the group of players who correctly interpret the tasks set by the coach. So, working with him is just pure fun”.
Initially, Lucescu deployed him as an attacking-minded holder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Such a decision was also influenced by Fernandinho’s long-term injury received in the game against Obolon in mid September. Henrikh quickly became one of the fans’ favourite players, winning almost every poll carried out by the club’s official website. When Fernandinho returned to full fitness, Mkhitaryan was more used as central attacking midfielder, fighting for a first-team berth with Jadson, the scorer of Shakhtar’s winning goal against Werder Bremen in the 2009 UEFA Cup final. Shakhtar’s head coach recalls one of his conversations with Jadson: “When Jadson – with whom I had a very trusting relationship – first started talking about leaving Shakhtar, he immediately called Henrikh the principal successor. Only such a great player could fully appreciate the talent of his competitor for a place in the first team and admit out loud that sooner or later it will be difficult for him to deal with Mkhitaryan”. After Jadson’s departure to Brazil due to family reasons in January 2012, Mkhitaryan cemented his place in the line-up, becoming an integral part of Shakhtar’s fluid front four as well as the team’s main engine.
2010/11 Champions League. Roma v Shakhtar
Previous season saw Mkhitaryan netting 10 goals and making 3 assists in 26 league appearances for Shakhtar whereas in this season Henrikh has already scored 7 and set up 3 goals in 5 league games. Given Shakhtar’s dominance in the Ukrainian top flight, the real litmus test for Henrikh Mkhitaryan as well as for the whole team will be this year’s Champions League, especially since the previous campaign was unsuccessful despite high expectations.
2011/12 Champions League. Shakhtar v Porto
Perhaps, when Valeriy Lobanovskiy and Arrigo Sacchi were talking about evolution of football which would lead to ultimate players able to perform any roles on the pitch, they meant someone like Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a hardworking intelligent player who can attack, defend, track his opponent, and create space for his teammates to exploit regardless of the position he occupies on the pitch. And one more thing, Henrikh doesn’t need sabres to dance through the opposition defence.