Albania set for Euro debut in France


Albania. (Thanassis Stavrakis/AP)

One of five nations to make its tournament debut at Euro 2016, Albania will also play in a major international tournament for the first time this summer in France. This Albania side—comprised of players born in Albania, as well as Kosovo, and players raised in other parts of the continent after fleeing the civil war in the 1990s—is much greater than the sum of its parts, making up for its lack of star power with a strong sense of team unity, and play with a sense of fearlessness that makes them a dangerous prospect.

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).

Italian Gianni De Biasi has been in charge of Albania since 2011, becoming a hero in that country after leading Shqiponjat (The Eagles) to their first major international tournament. A former midfielder, he bounced around as a manager at several clubs in Italy, and spent time in Spain with Levante. But it was with Albania where he achieved his greatest fame, his success due in part to giving young players a chance, and supplying the national team program with more discipline and tactical sophistication.

4-5-1: (GK) Berisha – (D) Agolli, Mavraj, Cana, Hysaj – (M) Lenjani, Xhaka, Memushaj, Basha, Roshi – (F) Cikalleshi

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June 11: vs. Switzerland in Lens
June 15: vs. France in Marseille
June 19 vs. Romania in Lyon

Albania finished second in a tough group that included Portugal, Denmark and Serbia, and let their intentions be known by beating the Portuguese on the road in their first game. While Ronaldo and his cohorts ran away with the group, Albania battled it out with the Danes for second, and was helped along when they were awarded a 3-0 road win over Serbia by default—the game was abandoned after Serb fans invaded the pitch and attacked Albanian players. That was enough to push them ahead of the Danes, but even without that decision, Albania rightly deserve to be in France after a solid display in the qualifiers.

Albania proved to be tough side to break down during the qualifiers, conceding just five times in eight games. Well organized and disciplined under De Biasi, Albania floods the midfield with five players, limiting space for their opponents to operate within. Aside from qualifying for their first major tournament, the Albanians have also earned positive results against France and Portugal, so confidence is riding pretty high.

In a word, goals. They scored a modest 10 goals in eight qualifying games, with no Albanian player netting more than once. They lack a proven attacking threat up top—starting striker Sokol Cikalleshi didn’t even score during the qualifiers—and don’t have any legitimate game-breakers. If they’re trailing, it’s pretty hard to see how they’re going to fight their way back into the contest.

Sokol Cikalleshi: He is the preferred striker of choice in De Biasi’s 4-5-1 formation, even though he failed to find the back of the net in the qualifiers, and only has two goals for his country, both in friendlies. A solid attacking player who’s noted for his aerial ability.

Elseid Hysaj: The Napoli right fullback offers Albania a bit of a thrust going forward with his overlapping runs on counter-attacks. He can also play on the left side of defence when called upon.

Shkelzen Gashi: One of the few MLS players who will compete at Euro 2016, the Albanian forward is a former MVP of the Swiss league who now plays for the Colorado Rapids. He can play as an outright striker, in a withdrawn role behind the main forward, or on the right.

Can they get out of the group? They survived a tough qualifying campaign that included games against Portugal, Denmark and Serbia. But this is the big time now, and the Euro debutantes face another task this summer with a group that includes hosts France and Switzerland. Unlike the qualifiers, there’s little to no room for error at the European Championship. Mistakes will be punished, so they’ll have to play with poise and maturity.

Albania has already achieved so much by even qualifying for Euro 2016. They surprised so many by deservedly punching their ticket for France, and even now expectations are being kept in check. Albania’s lack of big-tournament experience and star power will come back to haunt them. Two tough opening games against Switzerland and France could easily see them be eliminated before the group stage is even concluded. Getting to the knockout round would be a massive accomplishment. It doesn’t look likely, though.


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