Breaking New Ground
Running out against Switzerland on June 11 in Lens will be a truly momentous occasion for Albanian football as they make their debut at a major tournament.
Well-travelled Italian coach Gianni De Biasi has guided Albania to Euro 2016 on the back of a runner-up finish behind Portugal in the only five-team qualifying group, the culmination of four years’ hard graft from the former Udinese coach.
The Albanian success was founded on a spectacular start that saw them stun Portugal to grab a priceless away win in their opening game courtesy of Bekim Balaj’s second-half volley.
That was followed up by a pleasing home draw with Denmark before violence meant Serbia forfeited three points to Albania when their clash in Belgrade had to be abandoned with the game scoreless.
That was a break that De Biasi and his men would make the most of. They took care of group whipping boys Armenia at home before securing what was perhaps the crucial point in their campaign with a scoreless draw against Denmark in Copenhagen last September.
Portugal’s Miguel Veloso snatched a dramatic 92nd minute goal to deny Albania a home point three days later and, when they lost to Serbia in their penultimate game, the pressure seemed to be getting to them.
Denmark were also wobbling though and their final day defeat to Portugal ensured it was Albania, by virtue of a three-goal success in Armenia, who sealed qualification for Euro 2016 in France.
The squad that De Biasi is likely to bring to France features a core group of players in their early to mid-20s for whom relative success with the national team is becoming the norm under this coach.
They also managed to win three and draw two of their ten qualifiers in their failed attempt to reach the 2014 World Cup in Brazil – a section that was topped by the Swiss side they face in their Euro 2016 opener.
They are captained by the experienced and well-travelled Lorik Cana, a defensive midfielder or central defender who has played for Paris St-Germain, Galatasaray and Lazio in his time. Now at Nantes, the 32-year-old should be at home in France this summer.
Fellow veteran Burim Kukeli also featured in all bar one of Albania’s qualifiers while Cana’s Nantes teammate Ermir Lenjani is solid if unspectacular. Meanwhile, 24-year-old Basel player Taulant Xhaka has quickly established himself as a key figure in the side since earning his first cap in the opening win against Portugal.
The Albanians are likely to set themselves up to be hard to break down – they did not concede any goals away from home in qualification.
The trouble is at the other end where, aside from being awarded a 3-0 win over Serbia, they managed just seven goals in seven games during qualifying – with five of that tally coming against Armenia.
The striking duties – De Biasi is likely to field one central striker – have been shared by Sokol Cikalleshi and Balaj, who contributed just one goal in qualifying between them, the latter’s winner against Portugal.
Getting something from their opening game against Switzerland will be crucial if Albania are to maintain hopes of progress.
However, the victory for this squad has already been achieved in making it to France as they will go where none of their countrymen have gone before by appearing at a major tournament finals.
Goalkeepers: Etrit Berisha (Lazio), Alban Hoxha (Partizani), Orges Shehi (Skenderbeu)
Defenders: Elseid Hysaj (Napoli), Lorik Cana (Nantes), Arlind Ajeti (Frosinone), Mergim Mavraj (Koeln), Naser Aliji (Basel), Ansi Agolli (Karabag), Frederik Veseli (Lugano)
Midfielders: Ermir Lenjani (Nantes), Andi Lila (Giannina), Migjen Basha (Como), Ledian Memushaj (Pescara), Burim Kukeli (Zurich), Taulant Xhaka (Basel), Ergys Kace (Paok), Amir Abrashi (Freiburg), Odise Roshi (Rijeka)
Forwards: Bekim Balaj (Rijeka), Sokol Cikalleshi (Medipol Basaksehir), Armando Sadiku (Vaduz), Shkelzen Gashi (Colorado Rapids)