Euro 2016, Albania

Euro 2016, Albania

One of three teams that started the qualifiers as fifth seeds, Albania’s is already one of the tournament’s great stories but it would the stuff of legend if Gianni De Biasi’s side somehow managed to extend their stay in France. Having been handed a slot in one of the competition’s less obviously lethal groups after capitalising on a poor Denmark campaign and awful Serbia one to get here, nothing can be ruled out and the Italian born coach will not be overawed by the Swiss or Romanians. They have some interesting players with young Napoli right back Elseid Hysaj well regarded and Shkelzen Gashi having scored a fair few goals for Basel before heading stateside but in other areas they are dependent on players who do not play at their clubs like goalkeeper Etrit Berisha. Ultimately, their lack of experience marks them as most likely to bring up the rear in Group A.

How they qualified

‘The Eagles’ qualified for their first ever finals from the only five-team group thanks to some excellent defensive displays – and the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Portugal were always going to finish top of Group I and did so with aplomb, losing just one game (which so happened to be against Albania). That opening game 1-0 win in Aveiro proved crucial to Albania’s prospects as they battled it out with Denmark for second place. After drawing with the Danes, home and away, the big stroke of luck came when they were awarded a 3-0 win over Serbia in Belgrade. After an Albanian flag claiming ownership of Kosovo was pulled down from a drone flying over the pitch a riot broke out involving fans and players. Uefa originally awarded the game to Serbia but, after taking it to the CAS, Albania had the decision overturned and were awarded the three points which saw them finish two ahead of Denmark.

Manager: Giovanni de Biasi

Little-known Italian coach de Biasi first achieved success in the dugout at Torino when he led them to promotion to Serie A in 2006 before keeping them up the following season. In the mad world of Italian football de Biasi then left to join Spanish club Levante before returning to manage Torino for the final five games of the season where he miraculously kept them up yet again. Since taking over as Albania manager de Biasi has been making waves in a country which has always been viewed as one of the whipping boys in European qualifying for both World Cups and European Championships. After some notable wins in 2014 World Cup qualifying, the 59-year-old made history by leading Albania to their first ever major tournament.

Star man: Lorik Cana

The captain may be remembered by Sunderland fans for his brief captain’s cameo on Wearside during the 2009/10 Premier League season where became the first (and to date only) Albanian player to play in the Premier League. The 32-year-old has since enjoyed a successful spell with Lazio where he won a Coppa Italia and two Italian Super Cups before joining current club Nantes in Ligue 1. Already a hero in his home country, he enhanced his reputation in an incident in Belgrade in 2014. Cana managed to wrestle a Serbian pitch invader to the ground after the man had struck one of his team-mates with a chair. Cana was declared a citizen of honour from the mayor of the city of Mitrovica, Kosovo, as well as a similar award in the Albanian city of Bajram Curri.

One to watch: Rey Manaj

The Internazionale striker only turns 19 before this summer’s tournament starts but has already made an instant impact in an Albanian jersey when he came off the to score within 12 seconds against Kosovo on his full international debut. Inter manager Roberto Mancini has already described Manaj as “the new Ibrahimovic” thanks to his strength in the air and powerful long range shots.

Originally published here:
http://www.irishtimes.com/sport/soccer/international/euro-2016-nothing-can-be-ruled-out-with-albania-1.2660567