Perennial underdogs, Albania are set to make their debut appearance at a major tournament, controversially qualifying after being awarded three points from an abandoned match in Serbia following the infamous ‘drone incident’. They are drawing on patriotic pride for inspiration.
Lesson from qualifying
Stay compact. Incredibly, the Eagles didn’t concede a goal on their travels in qualifying, even producing a shock win against group winners Portugal. At home, they were more adventurous, and lost focus as a result.
With no one to set them apart in terms of individual class, their only hope is team spirit. These lads have that in abundance.
They lack true quality across the lines, as well as experience of any kind at this level.
Most likely to…
Hear opponents singing their national anthem. Switzerland are Albania’s first opponents at Euro 2016, and Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka, Pajtim Kasami, Xherdan Shaqiri and a couple of other Swiss players all have Albanian links.
Least likely to…
Tiki-taka their way to goal. Not this team.
What they hope will happen
What they’ve already done is heroic; reaching the knockout phase, even as a third-placed team, would be epic.
What will happen
The draw does offer some hope of upsetting the odds, but they would have to take four points off Switzerland and Romania either side of a game against France in Marseille. Still, it’s not impossible.
Key player - Elseid Hysaj
In moving to Napoli for £5m last summer, Elseid Hysaj became the second-most expensive Albanian player of all time, after his national team skipper Lorik Cana. The Eagles will need to keep it tight if they’re to have any chance of escaping Group A; the 22-year-old right-back can play a part in that.
Manager - Gianni De Biasi
Patient, studious and beloved in his adopted homeland, De Biasi previously took Modena into Serie A in 2002 on the back of successive promotions. Albania face hosts France a day before his 60th birthday.
Q&A - Lorik Cana
As captain of Albania, what does it mean to the country to have qualified for a major tournament for the first time?
It’s a dream, not only for us players but for the whole nation, who have their own representative among the biggest nations in football.
What are the team’s strengths?
De Biasi has helped us to play well. We have speed and power from an attacking point of view, and a fantastic defence: in qualifying we conceded only five goals, three of them after the 90th minute. We didn’t concede away from home.
What do you think of the group?
I wanted to avoid France because I think they’ll be ready. Switzerland will be a difficult game – I know their coach [Vladimir] Petkovic well from Lazio. Romania are similar to us: very strong defensively. We can achieve qualification, but on paper we’re behind the others.
Who should we look out for?
Players like Etrit Berisha of Lazio and Hysaj of Napoli have reached a certain level in the major leagues. Mergim Mavraj is an important player for Cologne, and in midfield there’s Amir Abrashi and Ergys Kace, while Odise Roshi is very important for us. Upfront there’s Bekim Balaj, Sokol Cikalleshi and Shkelzen Gashi, who’s in MLS.
Results and fixtures
June 11, Switzerland
June 15, France
June 19, Romania
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group I runners-up
vs Portugal (A) 1-0
vs Denmark (H) 1-1
vs Serbia (A) 3-0*
vs Armenia (H) 2-1
vs Denmark (A) 0-0
vs Portugal (H) 0-1
vs Serbia (H) 0-2
vs Armenia (A) 3-0
*Albania awarded 3-0 win after match abandoned
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
Words Alex Holiga; Interview Emanuele Giulianelli
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