Albania international scores first MLS goal

Albania international scores first MLS goal

TIRANA, April 17 – Albanian international midfielder Jahmir Hyka turned a hero for San Jose Earthquakes at the U.S. Major League Soccer last weekend as he scored a stoppage time equalizer to give his Western Conference side a precious point

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Albanian women claim historic World Cup qualification

Albanian women claim historic World Cup qualification

TIRANA, April 12 – Albania claimed a historic injury time qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup as they beat neighboring Greece 2-1 in their final preliminary round fixture to take the group’s lead, progressing to the qualifying group

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Partizani on track to make decades-long comeback as Superliga champions as they take lead

Partizani on track to make decades-long comeback as Superliga champions as they take lead

 TIRANA, April 10 – Partizani have taken the Superliga lead for the first time this season after beating newly promoted Luftetari, the Superliga surprise team this season, and rivals Kukesi were held to a goalless draw ending their four-month lead

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Weightlifters get medals in Croatia event

Weightlifters get medals in Croatia event

TIRANA, April 6 – Albanian weightlifters got medals in the European Weightlifting Championships in Croatia this week with Erkand Qerimaj managing to finish third overall in the men’s 77 kg. The 28-year-old Albanian snatched 155 kg and clean and jerked

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Albanian internationals shine with European clubs

Albanian internationals shine with European clubs

TIRANA, April 4 – Sokol Cikalleshi came in as a substitute only ten minutes before the final whistle to punish his former Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir with an injury time winner and give a blow to its title hopes last

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De Biasi under fire following national side’s fourth consecutive loss

De Biasi under fire following national side’s fourth consecutive loss

TIRANA, March 29 – Albania’s coach Gianni De Biasi has come under fire to prematurely end his Albania contract due to expire in late 2017 following the national sides fourth consecutive loss, including three World Cup qualifiers and a friendly,

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Albania to play Bosnia friendly after bidding adieu to World Cup qualifying bid

Albania to play Bosnia friendly after bidding adieu to World Cup qualifying bid

TIRANA, March 27 – Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday evening after bidding adieu to its World Cup qualifying bid with a third straight loss against Italy. The home test against one of the

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De Biasi calls up Albanian Superliga reinforcements for Italy encounter

De Biasi calls up Albanian Superliga reinforcements for Italy encounter

TIRANA, March 23 – With some key absences due to booking and injury, coach Gianni De Biasi has called up four players from the Albanian Superliga and a Croatia League midfielder to compensate for some key defensive absences and some

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World Cup qualifying campaign: Albania take on first official Italy encounter with some key absences

World Cup qualifying campaign: Albania take on first official Italy encounter with some key absences

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, March 13 – Albania will take on favourites Italy with some key defensive absences in their first ever official encounter as the Red & Blacks’ World Cup qualifying bid has received a severe blow following two

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Uta Ibrahimi undertakes challenge of becoming first Albanian woman to climb Everest

Uta Ibrahimi undertakes challenge of becoming first Albanian woman to climb Everest

TIRANA, March 10 – She has climbed the 4,880m Mount Blanc and reached the 5,925m Ramdug Peak in the Himalayas. Her next challenge is climbing Everest, the world’s highest peak of 8,848m and every climber’s lifetime dream. Her name is

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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132017" align="alignright" width="300"]Jahmir Hyka takes the corner kick. Photo: San Jose Earthquakes Jahmir Hyka takes the corner kick. Photo: San Jose Earthquakes[/caption]

TIRANA, April 17 - Albanian international midfielder Jahmir Hyka turned a hero for San Jose Earthquakes at the U.S. Major League Soccer last weekend as he scored a stoppage time equalizer to give his Western Conference side a precious point and keep them in the top five in the first eight games.

The equalizer against Dallas was Hyka's first MLS goal in his six appearances since joining the Quakes earlier this year in the Major League Soccer where he rivals another Albanian international, striker Shkelzen Gashi playing the Colorado Rapids.

The 29-year-old Albanian playmaker joined the Quakes last February on a multi-year contract from Swiss Superligue club Luzern where he had been playing since 2011, making 182 appearances and tallying 25 goals and 20 assists.

“I just followed the ball. The defender missed the ball a little bit, I think, and I just went at full speed. I just took it with me and shot it. I didn’t think so much. Thank God it went in,” Hyka told the Quakes portal about his first career MLS goal.

Commenting on the Quakes getting another later equalizer, Hyka said that shows character and team spirit.

“I think that shows character. We showed the team spirit and that we fight until the last second. That’s important because it’s not the same if you lose or draw the game. I hope that we’ll do better in the next game against New England and get the three points,” said Hyka.

Hyka, who started his career in his hometown of Tirana before playing in Norwegian, Greek and German top leagues, is also a regular with Albania’s national team, having scored twice in 43 caps and with a key contribution to Albania’s debut at a major competition such as the Euro 2016.

Hyka is the third Albanian international to play in the Major League Soccer after Hamdi Salihi’s 2012-2013 spell with D.C. United.

Meanwhile, Albanian international Shkelzen Gashi has made a poor start with his Colorado Rapids this season after claiming the Goal of the Year award last year and scoring nine goals to help the Rapids make it to the Western Conference championship. The Switzerland-born striker of Kosovo roots has not been a regular starter for the Rapids this season who sit bottom, but with two games in hand. He has not even been called up by Albania's coach De Biasi in the past three World Cup qualifiers.

Albania’s World Cup qualifying bid is now almost over following consecutive losses to group favorites Spain and Italy and even Israel. The poor performance in the past few months follows an impressive 2016 campaign when the national side made a first ever appearance at a major tournament such as Euro 2016 and was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage as one of the third-best placed teams after beating Romania in the group stage.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131957" align="alignright" width="300"]Albanian women celebrate after a last-minute victory with Greece. Photo: Albanian Football Association Albanian women celebrate after a last-minute victory with Greece. Photo: Albanian Football Association[/caption]

TIRANA, April 12 - Albania claimed a historic injury time qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup as they beat neighboring Greece 2-1 in their final preliminary round fixture to take the group's lead, progressing to the qualifying group stage.

Kosovo-Albanian striker Furtuna Velaj who plays in the Norwegian women's league was the fixture's protagonist as she scored an injury time goal to give Albania a 2-1 lead and compensate for her missed penalty kick in the 50th minute when the result was level at 1-1.

Albania took advantage of their numerical superiority as Greece was left in 10 women after the penalty kick but it was not until the 90th minute that Velaj avenged her missed opportunity to score a qualifier for the Albanian national side. The last minute victory gave Albania the group's lead with seven points, one more than second placed Greece.

The national side beat Kosovo 3-2 in the opening preliminary round match in Group B in what was considered a small derby of Albanian-roots, dominated by Kosovo players as Albania’s only five-year-old women’s national side features as many as 15 Kosovo women in the 22 football players called up for this tournament.

The women's Albania-Kosovo encounter was the first official fixture between the two ethnic Albanian countries in less than a year after Kosovo was admitted as a full member by the world football's governing body, FIFA.

Albania was earlier held in a goalless draw by Malta in their second group fixture and desperately needed a victory in the final match on April 11 against Greece, who had won both previous qualifiers with Kosovo and Malta .

Albania coach Armir Grima described the qualification as a reward for the players' maximum confidence and dedication in the tournament.

"The whole confidence we had materialized with a good performance, a victory and qualification. We were confident we would win ever since the draw. The team play is the strength of these women. They are incredible women who dedicate themselves a lot when training and playing and manage to get positive results," said Grima, the second coach of Albania women's national side who succeeded former Albania international Altin Rraklli in April 2016.

Furtuna Velaj who scored her second goal in three appearances at the preliminary round tournament held in Albania from April 6 to 11 said she never thought Albania would win with an injury time goal.

"When I missed the penalty kick I still thought we stood other chances and the important thing was not demoralizing. I knew that it would be a tough fixture against Greece but I never thought we would win this way and that I would score a last-minute qualifier," said 27-year-old Velaj, who has been playing with Albania since 2013.

The qualification to the group stage is a major success for the Albanian women's national side, only five years after their debut.

Albania, Israel, Kazakhstan, the Faroe Islands and best runners-up Moldova will join the 30 top-ranked entrants in the qualifying group stage in a draw scheduled for April 25.

The 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup will be held in France being the eighth tournament since the inaugural 1991 Women’s World Cup in China.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131936" align="alignright" width="300"]Partizani players celebrate after scoring the second goal against Luftetari: Photo: FK Partizani Partizani players celebrate after scoring the second goal against Luftetari: Photo: FK Partizani[/caption]

 TIRANA, April 10 - Partizani have taken the Superliga lead for the first time this season after beating newly promoted Luftetari, the Superliga surprise team this season, and rivals Kukesi were held to a goalless draw ending their four-month lead of Albania's top league.

Italy-born Ghanaian striker Caleb Ekuban proved decisive again for Partizani as he was fouled in the box and Partizani midfielder easily converted from the penalty spot to give the Reds an early lead. With Luftetari down to 10 men, Ekuban doubled just before the first-half whistle to score his 12 seasonal goal, trailing top scorer Croatian Kukes striker Pero Pejic by four goals.

With eight other games to go, Partizani now lead the Superliga with 58 points, two ahead of Kukes and eight points more than reigning champions Skenderbeu who have one game in hand.

With not much history in Albania’s top league, north-eastern Albania-based Kukes, who have been playing in the Superliga only during the past five years have made an impressive performance since 2012 finishing second four times and being the only key rival to Skenderbeu who have dominated Albanian football in the past six years.

Partizani coach Sulejman Starova says the eight remaining Superliga games will all be like finals for the Reds who are looking for a comeback as Superliga champions after more than two decades.

"We are happy with the victories, we had nine finals remaining and now there are eight others ahead. We were pleased with the three points against an opponent who has truly been the season's surprise, a tough team with quality players," Starova said after the home game with Luftetari who despite losing to favourites Partizani comfortably see themselves rank in the top five of the 10-team Albanian Superliga.

The Reds will travel to Shkodra-based Vllaznia on April 15 in another key title fixture. One of the best Superliga sides, Vllaznia held Kukes to a goalless draw last weekend to climb to fourth, overtaking Luftetari on goal difference.

Once the most successful club under communism, Partizani have been trophilesss in the Albanian top league since the early 1990s, but are favourites to win this year’s title after finishing second last season.

The Reds made a historic comeback to European club football last summer replacing Skenderbeu in the Champions League qualifying campaign after the Albanian champions were banned from European competition for 1 year over match fixing allegations.

Sixth straight Superliga champions Skenderbeu will travel to Vlore, southern Albania, tonight (April 10) in a key fixture for both teams. With one game in hand, Skenderbeu will be looking to keep up pace with leaders Partizani, whom they trail by eight points. Meanwhile, Flamurtari, who have been playing one of their worst seasons, will be looking for a victory to escape the relegation zone as they currently rank second from bottom.
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131882" align="alignright" width="300"]Daniel Godelli  Daniel Godelli got gold in snatch[/caption]

TIRANA, April 6 - Albanian weightlifters got medals in the European Weightlifting Championships in Croatia this week with Erkand Qerimaj managing to finish third overall in the men's 77 kg.

The 28-year-old Albanian snatched 155 kg and clean and jerked 193 kg for a total of 348 kg to claim a bronze medal overall.

Daniel Godelli competing in the same 77kg category got gold in snatch for a 161 kg lift but managed to lift only 186 kg in the clean and jerk, finishing fourth overall.

In the men's 69 kg, Albania's Briken Calja got bronze in the clean and jerk for a 175 kg lift but failed in all three 145 kg snatch attempts.

Albania's Evangjeli Veli and Romela Begaj finished fourth and fifth overall respectively in the women's 53 kg and 69 kg.

All Qerimaj, Godelli, Calja and Begaj have previously been suspended over doping, with Godelli stripped of his 2014 world championship title, making Albania send one of its smallest team of athletes at the 2016 Rio Olympics due to bans.

Krenar Shoraj also made a good performance in the men's 85 kg lifting a total of 348 kg, being the best among group B and C in his category in a result that is likely to be easily overcome by other Group A contestants.

Albania sent ten weightlifters at the Senior European Championships that is being held in Croatia's Split from April 2 to 8.

Weightlifting has traditionally been Albania’s best performing Olympic discipline at international competitions. Ilirjan Suli finished fifth in the men’s middleweight category at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games and Romela Begaj was sixth in the women’s lightweight at Beijing 2008.

In 1972, late Ymer Pampuri set a world record at the Munich Olympic Games for the press at featherweight lifting 127.5 kg, finishing ninth overall following an injury. Pampuri who died last January at 73 has since been a world record holder in the clean and press which later in 1972 was removed from competition due to difficulties in judging proper technique and health concerns.

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131852" align="alignright" width="300"]Sokol Cikalleshi celebrates after scoring an injury time winner Sokol Cikalleshi celebrates after scoring an injury time winner[/caption]

TIRANA, April 4 - Sokol Cikalleshi came in as a substitute only ten minutes before the final whistle to punish his former Turkish side Istanbul Basaksehir with an injury time winner and give a blow to its title hopes last weekend.

The 26-year-old Albanian international striker moved to Akhisar Belediye in late January on loan  from Basaksehir following few playing opportunities during the past year and the club's signing of former Arsenal and Manchester City striker Emmanuel Adebayor.

"I am happy I scored a last-minute winner even though it was a match against Basaksehir who lost 50 percent of their chances for the championship title," Cikalleshi told Albanian media.

A product of the Albanian championship where he played several years until 2014, Cikalleshi has been playing in Turkey for the past couple of years following a brief spell in Croatia with Split.

"To tell the truth I feel an Akhisar player now even though I am here on a six-month loan," he added.

The powerful striker was De Biasi's first choice in the World Cup qualifier with Italy on March 24, when he squandered a golden early opportunity as he fired only inches wide of Italy’s right post in the opening minute.

Elsewhere, in the Italian championship Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj and Atalanta goalkeeper Etrit Berisha produced some impressive performances.

A regular starter with Napoli since joining in 2015, 22-year-old Hysaj was one of the key contributors to holding Serie A leaders Juventus to a 1-1 draw last weekend.

"It seems as though Napoli’s Albanian right full-back has regained his form. He put in a master shift tonight down the right flank defensively and joined the attack throughout the whole 90 minutes. Exceptional," wrote the Italian Football Daily portal.

The Napoli fullback has been on the watch by several big teams following his impressive games in Serie A and the Champions League in the past two seasons.

Atalanta striker Etrit Berisha who missed Albania's last qualifier with Italy due to a red card disqualification produced another impressive performance as he helped Atalanta win 5-0, being a protagonist with several saves and incurring a rough foul leading to an opponent being sent off.

Twenty-one-year-old goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha received criticism for his performance with Lazio last weekend as needlessly fouled a player in the box conceding a penalty kick.

In Germany, Albania's international center back Mergim Mavraj played a full 90 minutes with Hamburger to beat his former Bundesliga side Cologne 2-1 with a late precious winner, keeping his new side just above the relegation zone.

Mavraj moved to Hamburger from Cologne on a two-and-a-half-year deal for a €1.8 million fee in late December in a surprise move as the defender was playing one of his best seasons, having made it to the surprise Bundesliga team after an injury that kept him off the pitch for 20 games last season.

The impressive performance that some key Albanian internationals have been making with their clubs during this season has not helped much the national side, which is facing one of the most difficult moments in a decade following the Euro 2016 debut, the country’s first-ever participation in a major tournament.

The national side and coach De Biasi have been under fire following four consecutive defeats, including three World Cup qualifiers and a friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina, a losing streak Albania had not been suffering since more than a decade ago.

Having led Albania for the past five years and managing to take it to a first ever major competition such as the Euro 2016, the national side led by De Biasi has left much to be desired following the impressive Euro 2016 debut when Albania was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage as one of the best third-placed sides, punished by its goal difference.

Albania now stands almost zero chances to make it to the World Cup tournament following losses to favourites Spain and France and Israel.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 29 - Albania's coach Gianni De Biasi has come under fire to prematurely end his Albania contract due to expire in late 2017 following the national sides fourth consecutive loss, including three World Cup qualifiers and a friendly, a losing streak Albania had not been suffering since more than a decade ago.

Having led Albania for the past five years and managing to take it to a first ever major competition such as the Euro 2016, the national side led by De Biasi has left much to be desired following the impressive Euro 2016 debut when Albania was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage as one of the best third-placed sides, punished by its goal difference. The national side lost to hosts France and Switzerland but beat Romania 1-0 in their group stage, in impressive performances that led to a heroes' welcome upon their arrival in Tirana.

The Euro 2016 euphoria and over-confidence seem to be still present in the national side whose success peaked in mid-2016.

The World Cup qualifying campaign started pretty well with a tough injury-time win against Macedonia in a postponed match and an easy win over minnows Liechtenstein. The following tests for Albania proved disastrous with Spain, Israel and Italy all getting easy wins in their qualifiers with Albania who conceded seven goals and failed to score even a single goal, bidding adieu to its qualifying campaign almost halfway through the group stage matches.

To make matters worse, the national side also suffered a 2-1 home loss against Bosnia and Herzegovina this week to register its fourth consecutive loss, a losing streak it had not experienced since 2005 when it was led by German Hans-Peter Briegel.

"It is true that we suffered four consecutive losses. I think people who can understand should know that Albania's win would be the right result, this because of the absences we had and the team's performance. Friendlies also serve to test new players. We would be losing time if we didn't test candidate players for the near future," De Biasi told reporters after the Bosnia friendly, justifying the fourth consecutive loss.

Although Football Association President Armand Duka has made it clear De Biasi will remain with the national side until the end of the year when a possible renewal could be made, the association’s secretary general has hinted next June’s away qualifier with Israel could prove decisive for De Biasi.

"We hope we will not lose against Israel and get a positive result. We have no differences with Israel despite the progress of the game in Elbasan. If the contract is terminated amicably, that's something else," says Ilir Shulku, the secretary general at Albania's Football Association.

Down to nine men, Albania lost 3-0 in its home qualifier against Israel last November in a match played under extremely tight security measures over fears of a possible terrorist attack, irritating the Red & Black fans who have since boycotted the national side’s matches, claiming unfair treatment by police forces.

Fatbardh Jera, a member of the football association's executive committee, says the end of the World Cup qualifiers could be the end of De Biasi's era at the national side.

"De Biasi is under contract until the end of the campaign. However, this could also be the end of his era. Of course, he could leave at the end of the campaign," Jera has said.

The 60-year-old former Torino and Udinese club coach was also rumored to take over Italy following the Euro 2016 campaign and has not hidden his ambition to train a big national side.

De Biasi also has Albanian citizenship and was recently awarded an order of merit by the Italian president for promoting football and friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, March 27 - Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday evening after bidding adieu to its World Cup qualifying bid with a third straight loss against Italy.

The home test against one of the toughest Balkan sides is also seen as key for Gianni De Biasi and his future as Albania's coach after having led the national side for the past five years and managing to take it to a first ever major tournament such as Euro 2016.

Albania played well in last Friday’s qualifier with Italy but was punished by an early penalty for a needless foul and squandered several scoring opportunities before it conceded its second knockout goal. To make matters worse, the national side now faces the threat of a huge fine by the world football's governing body, FIFA, and play one or two matches behind closed doors after the Italy qualifier was suspended for several minutes as a group of Albanian fans threw flares on the pitch.

The Italy qualifier was seen as the last chance for Albania to remain in race for a top two finish and a possible play-off opportunity for Russia 2018, although mathematically Albania can still make it if they win all five remaining games.

Having played all five first round matches, Albania now see themselves rank fourth with only six points, trailing leaders Spain and Italy by seven points and lagging behind three points third-placed Israel, who now remain Albania's sole rival in their fight for a third place in group G of the World Cup qualifiers.

“Of course I feel bad because we lost to Italy and now our qualifying chances are zero," De Biasi told a Swiss newspaper.

"I think we played a tactically good game, the team performed well and surprised the opponents from the start. We made an individual mistake, and in my opinion, the referee quite generously awarded a penalty kick and this is when the match changed," De Biasi told a press conference upon arriving in Durres last weekend as Albania prepares for the Bosnia friendly.

The Italy encounter also produced some clashes within the national side with Basel midfielder Taulant Xhaka announcing he will no longer join the national side as long as De Biasi is in charge. A regular starter in the past few years, the Basel player of Kosovo roots claims he has been given no explanation for not being included on the starting line-up and not used as a substitute by coach De Biasi.

Taulant Xhaka, 25, and his younger brother, Swiss international Granit Xhaka, made history at the Euro 2016 becoming the first brothers to face each other on different national sides at a European championship when Albania faced Switzerland at the opening group stage fixture.

Albania will play Bosnia and Herzegovina on Tuesday, March 28 at the Elbasan Arena stadium. The two teams have faced each other four times with each national side having won once and drawn twice.

The Bosnia side travel to Albania after thrashing minnows Gibraltar 5-0 to keep their World Cup qualifying hopes alive as they trail leaders Belgium by 3 points in Group H.

Bosnia and Herzegovina who have been playing as a national side since 1992 after breaking up from former Yugoslavia made their major international debut at the 2014 World Cup. They currently rank 29th in the FIFA March ranking, up 25 spots compared to Albania who have lost considerable ground following three consecutive losses against Spain, Israel and Italy.

The Albanian national side will travel to Israel on June 11 and play home to modest Liechtenstein on Sept. 2 before facing Macedonia three days later. The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.
                    [post_title] => Albania to play Bosnia friendly after bidding adieu to World Cup qualifying bid
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131663" align="alignright" width="300"]latifi alla Skenderbeu's Latifi and Kukesi's Alla fight in an Albanian Superliga fixture[/caption]

TIRANA, March 23 - With some key absences due to booking and injury, coach Gianni De Biasi has called up four players from the Albanian Superliga and a Croatia League midfielder to compensate for some key defensive absences and some strikers that have been left out of the 23-men squad for the key Italy encounter and the Bosnia and Herzegovina friendly in the next few days.

Twenty-four year old defender Albi Alla who has been shining with the Albanian Superliga leaders Kukesi during this season has received his first international call with Albania who take on a decisive qualifier away to Italy on March 20 in their World Cup qualifying bid after a setback following two consecutive losses to Spain and Israel.

Partizani and Skenderbeu goalkeepers Alban Hoxha and Orges Shehi have also been called up for the next two matches to compensate for Etrit Berisha, the Atalanta and national side regular starter, who will be missing the next two matches after being sent off in last November's Israel qualifier.

Lokomotiva Zagreb’s Eros Grezda and Skenderbeu’s Liridon Latifi, both of whom Kosovo-born midfielders in their early 20s, have received their second call up with the national side.

Albania's Pisa attackers in Italy’s Serie B Edgar Çani and Rei Manaj have both been left out of the squad although Manaj seems back on track after scoring twice in the past couple of weeks with his new side. Shkelzen Gashi, who scored nine goals last season with his Colorado Rapids at the U.S. Major League and even claimed the league's 'Goal of the Year' award has also been left out again, although Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in same league has been included in the 23-men squad.

Speaking about his four choices from the Albanian Superliga, coach De Biasi said the Albanian Superliga has become much tougher in the past five years since he took over Albania in late 2011.

“The Albanian championship has improved a lot since I have been here. There are some players we are closely watching, but there is not much space as there are many players in stronger leagues. I never get away my attention from the Albanian championship, especially this year when rivalry has increased,” he told reporters.

With ten more games to go, sixth straight consecutive Superliga champions and the 2015 UEFA Europa league Albania debutants Skenderbeu, are facing tough competition season this year as they trail leaders Kukes and Partizani by two points.

The long-awaited first official Italy encounter is considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016.

“I am so proud to be part of this nation. I will be so happy if we beat Italy even though I am Italian myself. I have come here to work seriously, doing this job with all my heart and we managed to achieve something extraordinary. I have been feeling Albanian for real,” said De Biasi, considered a hero in Albania and recently honored with an Italian presidential order of merit for promoting football and friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries.

The Italian coach admits it will be tough against the four-time World champions, but is still optimistic Albania can make a top two finish in a tough qualifying group stage that also features 2010 World Champions Spain.

“Playing against Italy is something motivating for everybody of us because we are playing against the four-time World champions. It will be tough for us even because of the fact that their players are in good shape and play and score regularly,” De Biasi told reporters.

Defender Mergim Mavraj who joined Hamburger in the German Bundesliga last January will be a key absence for coach De Biasi and Albania who have been suffering consecutive defensive problems after their Euro 2016 debut and the departure of long-serving captain Lorik Cana from international and club football.

Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defender Berat Xhimshiti, both of whom sent off last November in the home qualifier with Israel, which 9-men Albania lost 0-3, will also be key absences for De Biasi although the goalkeeper issue seems already settled with another substitute from Italy’s Serie A. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Strakosha who has been shining as a regular starter with Lazio in the past few weeks seems a perfect substitute for veteran goalkeeper Berisha, who has also been in perfect shape helping his new Atalanta side play one of their best seasons since joining last January on loan from Lazio.

“It is not difficult motivating the team against reputable opponents. For me, it is more difficult arranging a game against an unknown team. I know Italy quite well and it is quite normal we have to do our best to handle a very tough match like this one,” said De Biasi.

Leading Albania for the past five years, De Biasi got a surprise away Euro 2016 qualifying victory with Portugal and stunned Euro 2016 hosts France in a friendly, finishing second in a tough qualifying campaign that also featured Denmark and Serbia.

Commenting on alleged euphoria following the historic first ever participation in a European championship, De Biasi said, “after two losses against Spain and Israel, the euphoria has normally faded away. We now have to be careful to avoid repeating such situations because our strength stands in being a united group and mobilizing better on the pitch.”

The national side earlier beat Macedonia 2-1 and won 2-0 against modest Liechtenstein in the first two qualifiers before the Spain and Israel losses.

Keeping optimism alive in the team, De Biasi, who has often been roumoured of taking over a new national side or club, said a runner-up group finish is still possible.

"De Biasi's objective is finishing second in the qualifiers as the first spot is quite difficult. I have shown I am a man of word and have even given up important contracts to take this team to the European championship,” he said.

Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj who has been on the watch by several big teams following his impressive games in Serie A and the Champions League in the past two seasons provides some guarantee for De Biasi along with new captain Andi Lila who plays in the Greek top league.

About a dozen Albanian players in Italy’s Serie A and B where Napoli 22-year-old fullback Elseid Hysaj is the most sought-after Albanian international.

The midfield seems tougher with Pescara’s Ledian Memushaj and Basel’s Taulant Xhaka having been regular starters with their Italian and Swiss teams and Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in the U.S. Major League Soccer.

[caption id="attachment_130612" align="alignright" width="300"]sadiku 1 Sadiku scores Albania's sole goal against Romania in the Euro 2016 group stage[/caption]

Albania now also has more offensive options with striker Armando Sadiku scoring five goals with his new Lugano team in the top Swiss league following an injury that saw him missing the last two Spain and Israel qualifiers. Having scored seven goals with the national side, including one in the first-ever European championship appearance against Romania at the Euro 2016, Sadiku has been a reference point in Albania’s attack in the past couple of years.

Strikers playing in the Russian, Turkish and Kazakhstan championships such as Bekim Balaj, Sokol Cikalleshi and Azdren Llullaku are the three other attacking alternatives for De Biasi who will likely use Sadiku as a sole starting forward for the Italy encounter.

With six other qualifiers to go, Albania now see themselves fourth with 6 points, trailing Israel by 3 points and group leaders Spain and Italy by four points.

Although mathematically Albania can still remain hopeful for a miracle second place which would award them a play-off opportunity, their qualifying bid looks like a mission impossible now as former World Champions Italy and Spain seem unrivaled in the fight for the group’s first two places.

 

Italians confident

[caption id="attachment_131660" align="alignright" width="300"]Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura  Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura[/caption]

The four-time World Cup winners who rival Spain for a top finish and direct qualification for Russia 2018  are confident they will make it with Albania although it will not be easy and that is why they have selected Palermo, a southern Italy region where it enjoys its strongest support and has almost always triumphed.

“Albania and Israel are two key matches and that's why we need the fans' support. Italy has never disappointed in Palermo.  We are preparing for this match with clarity. A new generational change has been initiated and this can take us further than imagined if we develop this group of players. Italy is Italy, when in difficulty it has always shown it ready to unveil what wearing the Azzurri shirt means. A new group of young players is emerging," Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura has said, pointing out emerging talents such as Belotti and Immobile.

"The result is extremely important against Albania. We know that it will be a crucial fixture, as it could also influence how we perceive the match in Spain. I am calm because after three months I have came across a group of players who are willing to give me everything," Ventura has told a press conference.

The Italian football association says the Azzurri have a very positive record in Palermo, only one draw and a loss out of 13 games played, having won all the last five consecutive games.

“For Italy this encounter will mean another record to defend, as during World Cup qualifying they are still unbeaten at home. In 50 matches played from 1934 to 2013 on home soil, they have recorded 43 victories and seven draws,” says the Italian association.

The two national sides will play in Palermo, southern Italy, on March 24 in the second encounter after a previous 2014 friendly in Genoa which Italy narrowly won 1-0.

Four days later, Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 28 at the Elbasan Arena stadium following the end of the first round of the World Cup qualifying campaign before travelling to Israel next June in a new tough qualifier.

The national side will travel to Israel on June 11 and play home to modest Liechtenstein on Sept. 2 before facing Macedonia three days later. The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.

 
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

debiasiTIRANA, March 13 - Albania will take on favourites Italy with some key defensive absences in their first ever official encounter as the Red & Blacks’ World Cup qualifying bid has received a severe blow following two consecutive losses against Spain and Israel in late 2016.

Due to booking and injury, goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defenders Mergin Mavraj and Berat Gjimshiti will be missing in the long-awaited Italy encounter, considered a 'local derby' due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016.

Defender Mergim Mavraj who joined Hamburger in the German Bundesliga last January will be a key absence for coach De Biasi and Albania who have been suffering consecutive defensive problems after their Euro 2016 debut and the departure of long-serving captain Lorik Cana from international and club football.

The 30-year Germany-born Albanian defender of Kosovo roots picked an injury in early March following some impressive performances with his new Bundesliga side, with the ruptured tendon believed to keep him off the pitch for several weeks, including the key qualifier with Italy.

Mavraj, who has been playing with the national side since 2010, moved to Hamburger from Cologne on a two-and-a-half-year deal for a €1.8 million fee in a surprise move as the defender was playing one of his best seasons, having made it to the surprise Bundesliga team after an injury that kept him off the pitch for 20 games last season.

Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defender Berat Xhimshiti, both of whom sent off last November in the home qualifier with Israel, which 9-men Albania lost 0-3, will also be key absences for De Biasi although the goalkeeper issue seems already settled with another substitute from Italy’s Serie A.

Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Strakosha who has been shining as a regular starter with Lazio in the past few weeks seems a perfect substitute for veteran goalkeeper Berisha, who has also been in perfect shape helping his new Atalanta side play one of their best seasons since joining last January on loan from Lazio.

Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj who has been on the watch by several big teams following his impressive games in Serie A and the Champions League in the past two seasons provides some guarantee for De Biasi along with new captain Andi Lila who plays in the Greek top league.

Kaiserslautern defender in the German second division Naser Aliji, the only Macedonia-born Albanian who plays for the national side is another option that De Biasi could also consider along with Rennes’ Ermir Lenjani and Torino's Arlind Ajeti, both of whom not first choices with their respective teams in the top French and Italian leagues.

 

Attack gains momentum

The midfield seems tougher with Pescara's Ledian Memushaj and Basel's Taulant Xhaka having been regular starters with their Italian and Swiss teams and Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in the U.S. Major League Soccer where he will rival compatriot striker Shkelzen Gashi in the 2017 season.

Albania now also has more offensive options with striker Armando Sadiku scoring five goals in five games with his new Lugano team in the top Swiss league following an injury that saw him missing the last two Spain and Israel qualifiers. Having scored seven goals with the national side, including one in the first-ever European championship appearance against Romania at the Euro 2016, Sadiku has been a reference point in Albania’s attack in the past couple of years.

Strikers playing in the Russian, Turkish and Italian championships such as Bekim Balaj, Sokol Cikalleshi and Rey Manaj are some other options for De Biasi in the Italy encounter where he will likely use a sole forward.

Coach De Biasi says Albania faces a tough challenges and admits his Italian counterpart Giampiero Ventura has higher quality at his disposal.

"We are approaching this match with lots of emotion. Unfortunately, I see Ventura who has a championship producing some high-level players such as Belotti, Immobile and Candreva, just to mention a few in the offensive sector, at a time when I have to deal with a lot of absences,” De Biasi has told Italian media.

"I have problems with the goalkeeper and the two central defenders who been regular starters recently. We face some difficulties, but I am sure we will play our chances," adds De Biasi, recently honored with an Italian presidential order of merit for promoting football and friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries.

About a dozen Albanian players in Italy's Serie A and B where Napoli 22-year-old fullback Elseid Hysaj is the most sought-after Albanian international.

 

An almost mission impossible

After its historic direct qualification for the Euro 2016 and failing to make it as the third-best team at the knockout stage only on goal difference, Albania and coach De Biasi have been facing some tough times in their Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying bid.

Albania’s hopes for a third place and a possible play-off opportunity in the World Cup qualifiers received a severe blow in late 2016 following losses to Spain and Israel in the last two qualifiers. The national side earlier beat Macedonia 2-1 and won 2-0 against modest Liechtenstein in the first two qualifiers.

With six other qualifiers to go, Albania now see themselves fourth with 6 points, trailing Israel by 3 points and group leaders Spain and Italy by four points.

Although mathematically Albania can still remain hopeful for a miracle second place which would award them a play-off opportunity, their qualifying bid looks like a mission impossible now as former World Champions Italy and Spain seem unrivaled in the fight for the group’s first two places.

The Red & Blacks will travel to Italy on March 24 to conclude the first round of group matches for the Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers in a historic fixture that sees the two national sides face each other for the first time in an official competition.

The two national sides will play in Palermo, southern Italy, in the second encounter after a previous 2014 friendly in Genoa which Italy narrowly won 1-0.

Italy currently rank second in Group G of the qualifiers with 10 points on poorer goal difference compared to leaders Spain.

Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 28 at the Elbasan Arena stadium following the end of the first round of the World Cup qualifying campaign before travelling to Israel next June in a new tough qualifier.

The national side will travel to Israel on June 11 and play home to modest Liechtenstein on Sept. 2 before facing Macedonia three days later. The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.

 

 
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_131563" align="alignright" width="300"]uta 2 Uta Ibrahimi[/caption]

TIRANA, March 10 - She has climbed the 4,880m Mount Blanc and reached the 5,925m Ramdug Peak in the Himalayas. Her next challenge is climbing Everest, the world's highest peak of 8,848m and every climber's lifetime dream.

Her name is Uta Ibrahimi, a Kosovo-Albanian who has been picked as the first Albanian woman to undertake this tough challenge due to having the required physical and psychological condition. The announcement was made by the Tirana-based Dajti Alpine-Tourist Association on March 8, the International Women's Day, as part of the 'Albanian Woman in Everest' project that is expected to conclude next November when Albania marks its 105th anniversary of independence.

The challenge comes five years after a team of Albanian climbers of the Dajti Alpine-Tourist Association led by Xhimi Begeja became the first to raise the national flag on the summit of Mount Everest.

"My several years of experience in mountain climbing, continuous physical training, maturity and self-confidence, support by the pan-Albanian climbers, has made me more courageous to undertake this tough challenge carrying lots of risks," says 33-year-old Uta Ibrahimi, a marketer and climber based in Prishtina, the Kosovo capital city, where she runs an outdoor adventure travel agency.

"I feel honored and privileged that I was picked by the Dajti Alpine-Tourist Association and the Begeja family to represent Albanian women in the world's highest peak. I will do my best, and with Xhimi's support who has guided me in every detail, I hope this commitment will pay us all off, by flying our nation's flag on the roof of the world," added Ibrahimi.

Xhimi Begeja, who in 2012 on Albania’s centenary of independence, managed to climb the Everest together with his then-19-year old son Mateo, is convinced Uta's courage and desire for new challenges will pay off despite ever-present risks in the climb to the world’s highest peak claiming lives each year.

Some 500 women have climbed Everest so far since 1975 with Japan's Tamae Watanabe, aged 73 in 2012, becoming the oldest women atop Everest.

In a photo exhibition a year after the historic climb of the Albanian team, climber Fatjon Plaku, recalled that the same as climbing the Everest, taking pictures on the way to the Everest summit was very dangerous. “One of our team mates nearly lost his hand because of wanting to take some more pictures,” he said.

Back in 2012, Xhimi Begeja and his son Mateo, politician Gjergj Bojaxhi were among the team of six Albanian climbers who made it to the Everest summit assisted by Sherpas, having previously climbed the Mont Blanc and Kilimanjaro summits before deciding to take the risk of climbing the world’s highest peak at 8,848 metres above the sea level located in the Himalayas on the Nepal-China (Tibet) border.

 
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            [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_132017" align="alignright" width="300"]Jahmir Hyka takes the corner kick. Photo: San Jose Earthquakes Jahmir Hyka takes the corner kick. Photo: San Jose Earthquakes[/caption]

TIRANA, April 17 - Albanian international midfielder Jahmir Hyka turned a hero for San Jose Earthquakes at the U.S. Major League Soccer last weekend as he scored a stoppage time equalizer to give his Western Conference side a precious point and keep them in the top five in the first eight games.

The equalizer against Dallas was Hyka's first MLS goal in his six appearances since joining the Quakes earlier this year in the Major League Soccer where he rivals another Albanian international, striker Shkelzen Gashi playing the Colorado Rapids.

The 29-year-old Albanian playmaker joined the Quakes last February on a multi-year contract from Swiss Superligue club Luzern where he had been playing since 2011, making 182 appearances and tallying 25 goals and 20 assists.

“I just followed the ball. The defender missed the ball a little bit, I think, and I just went at full speed. I just took it with me and shot it. I didn’t think so much. Thank God it went in,” Hyka told the Quakes portal about his first career MLS goal.

Commenting on the Quakes getting another later equalizer, Hyka said that shows character and team spirit.

“I think that shows character. We showed the team spirit and that we fight until the last second. That’s important because it’s not the same if you lose or draw the game. I hope that we’ll do better in the next game against New England and get the three points,” said Hyka.

Hyka, who started his career in his hometown of Tirana before playing in Norwegian, Greek and German top leagues, is also a regular with Albania’s national team, having scored twice in 43 caps and with a key contribution to Albania’s debut at a major competition such as the Euro 2016.

Hyka is the third Albanian international to play in the Major League Soccer after Hamdi Salihi’s 2012-2013 spell with D.C. United.

Meanwhile, Albanian international Shkelzen Gashi has made a poor start with his Colorado Rapids this season after claiming the Goal of the Year award last year and scoring nine goals to help the Rapids make it to the Western Conference championship. The Switzerland-born striker of Kosovo roots has not been a regular starter for the Rapids this season who sit bottom, but with two games in hand. He has not even been called up by Albania's coach De Biasi in the past three World Cup qualifiers.

Albania’s World Cup qualifying bid is now almost over following consecutive losses to group favorites Spain and Italy and even Israel. The poor performance in the past few months follows an impressive 2016 campaign when the national side made a first ever appearance at a major tournament such as Euro 2016 and was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage as one of the third-best placed teams after beating Romania in the group stage.
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