Connect in the back of the net

Below is the third installment of a Euro 2016 column titled “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

In the 70 years since their first international match against Yugoslavia, the highlights of Albanian football have been triumphs in the Balkan Cup of 1946 and the Malta Rothmans International Tournament of 2000. The Red and Blacks, having missed out on a whole decade of competition in the 70s due to political paranoia, will reach a new highpoint on Saturday in Lens when they hear Hymn to the Flag blasted out for the very first time in a major international tournament.

They will debut against Switzerland in a game of twisted loyalties. Nine members of Albania’s squad were either born in Switzerland or spent large periods of their childhood in the country while five members of the Switzerland squad come from Albanian descent. One of them is Granit Xhaka, the new Arsenal midfielder who will line up against his older brother Taulant on Saturday afternoon.

Granit has earned a £34 million move to Arsenal on the back of a line of industrious displays at the heart of Borussia Monchengladbach’s midfield but Taulant has been doing the same for Basel over the past couple of seasons and will fancy using the championships as an opportunity to seize the limelight held by his sibling with whom he once shared a spot in Switzerland’s youth side.

Albania conceded only 5 goals from 8 games in qualifying and didn’t leak a single one away from home, owing to the solid protection given to the defence by Xhaka and his usual midfield partners Burim Kukeli and Amir Abrashi. Migjen Basha and Ledian Memushaj may each have a chance of starting with Xhaka out in France in a midfield engine room that will be ordered by manager Gianni De Biasi to shuffle into a tight pack when Albania do not have the ball.

De Biasi saw his team finish second from bottom in their qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup and that set in process the change of culture to one that now emphasises hard-work and organisation. In the early days of Euro 2016 qualifying the Italian coach added a third midfielder to his original 4-4-2 system and has now created a unit that will be very difficult to beat.

Organising the back four will be 32 year old Lorik Cana who will earn his 95th cap in France. Cana will be the dressing room’s go-to man as the player who has grown accustomed to the demands of this level during spells with Paris St Germain, Marseille, Galatasary and Lazio.

The Kosovan-born Cana spent his childhood in Switzerland after fleeing the civil war that engulfed within the former Yugoslavia in the early 90s, but is fiercely patriotic about representing Albania and they couldn’t choose a better captain- remember the defence of his players during the drone incident in the match with Serbia in qualifying.

Cana, now playing his club football in France with Nantes, will be the player the squad turn to for guidance during this tournament and even though a deep-defensive line will have to be utilised to compensate for his fading legs, he has conjured a solid and effective understanding with FC Koln’s Mergim Mavraj, the calm and assured user of the ball to Cana’s blockade.

Either side will be Qarabag’s Ansi Angolli, a stay-at-home full-back in comparison to Napoli’s athletic Elseid Hysaj who will get forward on the right when he can to provide overlaps. Hysaj missed just 1 of Napoli’s Serie A games in an excellent campaign which ended with links to Chelsea and Bayern Munich. Lazio’s imposing reserve ‘keeper Ertrit Berisha will start behind them in goal with the ten players in front prioritised with protecting his goal.

The 59 year old Di Biasi spent all but half a season of his 26 year managerial campaign outside domestic Italy where he has been schooled in the art of defensive pragmatism and it was his overriding caution that was in effect when he omitted 19 year old attacking midfielder Milot Rashica, one of Albania’s most exciting prospects, from his final 23 despite a promising debut against Luxembourg in March.

Odishe Roshi and Shkelzen Gashi have got into the squad ahead of Rashica and both are well-versed in De Biasi’s demands of dropping back from their position on the wing to cover space and help out the full-back. On the left is Ermir Lenjani who played the majority of his games for Nantes this season as a left-back, but plays in advance of Qarabag’s Angolli for his national team.

It is a rigid 4-5-1 system without the ball but Albania can press high and squeeze the opposition with sharp passing to move up the field quickly. Being the lowest ranked team in France and in a tournament that offers a qualification spot to a handful of third placed teams, De Biasi will be right to place his faith in safety-first football, but it is important he maintains the balance between his midfield and striker, most likely Sokol Cikalleshi of Istanbul Basaksehir.

Cikalleshi is physical and able to hold the ball up to allow runners to join him but his 2 goals from 19 caps with Albania is suggestive of the wider problem De Biasi will face, a lack of goals running through the side. Albania were the lowest scoring team in qualifying and of the 23 Vaduz’s Armando Sadiku is top scorer with 5 and it could be that Albania will find themselves relying on the set-piece deliveries of Xhaka or Gashi as their main source of goals.

Ergys Kace scored an excellent free-kick in a 1-0 friendly win over France last June, a victory that stands them in good stead for Group A as they prepare to face Didier Deschamps’s men in their second match, and is, together with Basha, a gifted technical player who can create opportunities around the box if the service is provided.

A sense of unease will grip France, Switzerland and fellow Balkans Romania in Group A as Albania will be widely expected to be the whipping boys. Though with De Biasi’s defensive organisation and his players willing to follow his instructions to the letter, they are unlikely to go out with ease.

France found that out almost a year ago and in a year where the counter-attack has been perfected and honed through the success of Leicester City and Atletico Madrid, Albania may fancy a way out of the group at least. If they manage it, the Malta Rothmans tournament can be resigned to the back of the Albanian football history books.


Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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