LONDON: Henrikh Mkhitaryan has been at Arsenal for less than two months, but that hasn’t stopped the fiercely-driven star from ruffling a few feathers as he tries to lead the Gunners to Europa League glory.
Mkhitaryan moved to Arsenal as part of the deal that sent Alexis Sanchez to Manchester United in January and the Armenian has already established himself as a key figure in Arsene Wenger’s troubled side.
The 29-year-old found himself frozen out by United manager Jose Mourinho, but Wenger is more appreciative of his qualities and has installed him on the right of his three-man attacking midfield.
Mkhitaryan has scored in his last two appearances for Arsenal, with his maiden goal coming in their crucial 2-0 win at AC Milan in the Europa League last 16 first leg.
After netting again in Sunday’s 3-0 victory over Watford, Mkhitaryan has done his bit to ease the pressure on Wenger, who is fighting to save his job after another miserable season.
Qualifying for next season’s Champions League is essential to Wenger’s hopes of extending his 22-year reign and, with their domestic form so patchy this year, winning the Europa League is their only realistic way of achieving that goal.
With that in mind, Mkhitaryan’s presence at the Emirates Stadium might be seen as a good omen for Wenger.
Although Mkhitaryan struggled to convince Mourinho of his worth, he was still a valuable contributor to their Europa League success last season.
He scored five times on United’s pat to the final, including a pair of vital strikes in each leg of the semi-final against Anderlecht.
Capping his memorable campaign in the competition, Mkhitaryan hit United’s second goal in their 2-0 win against Ajax as they lifted the trophy in Stockholm.
That refusal to be beaten down by Mourinho is a testament to Mkhitaryan’s competitive personality.
And it is that willingness to face potentially damaging situations that prompted him to issue a defiant challenge to Arsenal’s furious fans this week.
Though Arsenal reported that 59,131 tickets were sold for the Watford game, there were several thousand seats left empty as supporters stayed away in protest at Wenger’s struggles.
The north London club are without a league title since 2004 and fans have lost patience with Wenger’s failure to build a new powerhouse.
Recognising that internal strife will dent Arsenal’s bid to get back on track in the closing weeks of the season, Mkhitaryan called on supporters to show their true colours.
“We’re always playing for the fans, it doesn’t matter if they could have come today or not,” Mkhitaryan told beIN Sports.
“We’re always playing for those who come and support us; the people who are really coming and supporting us are real fans.
“Those who are coming to the stadium just when we are winning we have nothing to say. Just thanks to the fans who were supporting.”
It was a gutsy move by Mkhitaryan, who had laid on Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang’s goal against Watford with a driving run and typically precise pass.
His former Borussia Dortmund team-mate Aubameyang repaid the favour with the pass that allowed the Armenian to score his first league goal for the Gunners later in the game.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing with him, it’s something special,” Mkhitaryan said.
Unfortunately for Arsenal, the old friends will be separated for the Milan clash as Aubameyang isn’t allowed to play.
Aubameyang is cup-tied despite not playing in the Europa League this season because Dortmund dropped from the Champions League into the Europa League, making him ineligible to represent his new club due to UEFA rules.
The absence of Aubameyang places extra pressure on Mkhitaryan and judging by his initial impact in an Arsenal shirt he will be up to the task.