Euro 2020: Panucci believes Albania can make it in more defensive style

Euro 2020: Panucci believes Albania can make it in more defensive style

TIRANA, Feb. 11 – Albania’s Italian coach is confident a switch to a more defensive football and some key players making a comeback following injury could see Albania make it through another miracle qualification for the Euro 2020, the same

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Albanian football president joins UEFA executive committee

Albanian football president joins UEFA executive committee

TIRANA, Feb. 7 – Albania’s football association president Armand Duka has managed to get a seat at the executive committee of UEFA, the European football’s governing body, becoming the first Albanian to join UEFA’s supreme executive body. The long-serving Albanian

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Albania’s reigning champions in crisis over severe UEFA match-fixing ban

Albania’s reigning champions in crisis over severe UEFA match-fixing ban

TIRANA, Feb. 6 – Albania’s reigning champions Skenderbeu are officially in crisis after suffering their sixth consecutive Superliga defeat in a situation that reflects financial problems and uncertainties ahead as they await a final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration

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Albanian football association in legal battle with gov’t over ‘denied’ UEFA tax refunds

Albanian football association in legal battle with gov’t over ‘denied’ UEFA tax refunds

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Jan. 30 – Failure to settle amicably a tax dispute on the under-construction National Arena stadium, the new home of Albania’s national side in the Albanian capital city Tirana, has taken Albania’s football association and the

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Talent split affecting Albania’s national side, says ex-captain Cana

Talent split affecting Albania’s national side, says ex-captain Cana

TIRANA, Jan. 23 – Albania’s retired captain Lorik Cana says the difficult moment that Albania has been facing following the major France 2016 appearance is also a result of ethnic Albanian talents having split into two national sides following Kosovo’s

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Albania’s top striker back to Switzerland after disappointing spells in Spain, Poland

Albania’s top striker back to Switzerland after disappointing spells in Spain, Poland

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Jan. 16 – Albanian international Armando Sadiku is back to Switzerland following a disappointing one-and-a-half year spell at Poland and Spain top leagues marred by few playing opportunities and injuries that kept him off the pitch

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Albania U21s drawn against Kosovo as rivalry over talents gets tougher

Albania U21s drawn against Kosovo as rivalry over talents gets tougher

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Dec. 14 – Albania’s under-21s have been drawn against Kosovo for the 2021 European Championship qualifiers in the first official encounter between the two neighboring Albanian-speaking countries since Kosovo’s 2016 admission as a UEFA and FIFA

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Albania’s Partizani emerge top favorites for long-awaited Superliga title

Albania’s Partizani emerge top favorites for long-awaited Superliga title

TIRANA, Dec. 10 – Albania’s Partizani have emerged as top favorites to claim a long-awaited Superliga title this season in what could be a major triumph for an elite Albanian club that has been trophiless at the top flight of

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Albania target Euro 2020 finals through second spot finish in tough qualifying group

Albania target Euro 2020 finals through second spot finish in tough qualifying group

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Dec. 3 – Albania have been drawn in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying campaign group stage with reigning world champions France and will apparently be fighting for a second spot with Iceland and Turkey in a

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Albania reconfirms Panucci for Euro 2020 qualifiers

Albania reconfirms Panucci for Euro 2020 qualifiers

TIRANA, Nov. 22 – Albania’s football association has confirmed Christian Panucci will be given another chance as Albania coach and lead the Red & Black through the Euro 2020 qualifiers despite the national side’s poor track record under the Italian’s

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 11 – Albania’s Italian coach is confident a switch to a more defensive football and some key players making a comeback following injury could see Albania make it through another miracle qualification for the Euro 2020, the same as they did in the 2016 qualifiers when they earned their first-ever appearance at a major competition.

Christian Panucci, who has been in charge of Albania since mid-2017, was reconfirmed as Albania coach in November 2018 despite failing at the inaugural UEFA Nations League campaign and losing a series of friendlies in lackluster performance that irritated both fans and football pundits.

However, the former Italy international who played top European clubs but had little experience as a coach when succeeding compatriot De Biasi who led Albania to France 2016, believes key absences from the former De Biasi and a more attacking football he was experimenting with were the key reasons behind failure.

With slightly more than a month to go before Albania takes on the opening qualifier, a home encounter against Turkey, Panucci believes Albania can make it to the top two in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

Having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania missed a chance to keep Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C Group 1 that also featured Scotland and Israel.

Assuming responsibility for the poor results under what he calls a ‘test period,’ the 45-year-old Italian believes a more defensive football like Albania used to play under De Biasi and newly recovered key players who missed most of the 2018 games, will give a boost to Albania’s Euro 2020 prospects.

“2018 was terrible and ugly. Albania is recovering some key players and we hope 2019 will provide some good results. I had unveiled we would be experimenting in one and a half years. We didn't receive positive reaction and will now start over safer switching more backwards. We will have a defensive team which could lead us to success,” Panucci has told a local TV.

Albania has lost eight out of 14 games under Panucci, most of which friendlies but also three Nations League qualifiers against Scotland and Israel, in one of the poorest track records in decades, placing the Italian under constant pressure and making his stay uncertain until last November when Albania claimed a morale booster in a home friendly against tougher Wales.

“I have noticed that when I asked the team to play more open football, we were so fragile. Now we have to close the gaps and be more compact. On our way, because of injuries or suspensions, there will be new players receiving a call, but we already have our group,” says Panucci.

The Italian has called up 22 new players since mid-2017, but only a handful are expected to receive fresh calls for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The recovery of striker Armando Sadiku who recently moved back to Switzerland following failed short-term spells in Poland and Spain and right winger Odise Roshi leaving behind a knee injury and restarting training in Russia are good news for the Albanian national side.

In addition, Elseid Hysaj is back to the starting eleven with top Italian side Napoli and striker Sokol Cikalleshi has regained shape, scoring in the top Turkish top league.

Two goalkeepers that regularly start with Lazio and Atalanta in the Italian Serie A are also a strength, but the defence and midfield remain weak points that Panucci has to settle.

Panucci believes that just like his predecessor De Biasi, who had a tough start with the national side, he can do better.

“I am really happy to be Albania's coach. Of course I am not happy with the 2018 results, but I am proud to be the coach of this country. One thing is for sure. When I chose the Albanian national side, it was one of the toughest European sides one could pick. That was because it had already qualified for the European championship and under those circumstances you needed to either be mad or have much confidence. And I am still convinced that this team could still do pretty well,” Panucci has said.

 

Argentinian “Arberesh” 

Tomas Guidara could become the first Argentina-born player to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian roots. The 22-year-old Argentinian currently plays as a defender for top Argentina league side Belgrano and could become eligible to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian “Arberesh” parents who migrated to Argentina from Italy. Southern Italy is the host of a centuries-old Albanian minority who moved there in the 15th century following the death of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, and the Ottomans resuming control of the country after being ousted for a quarter of century.

“Tomas Guidara is an Arberesh, I have talked to him. He is a right-back and currently his family and the football association are negotiating to reach a deal. Procedures have already kicked off and he could be handed the Albanian passport and is willing to come. I have also had cases of other players initially accepting and then changing their minds, but I will tell you more when he gets the Albanian passport,” Panucci has said about the Argentina-based player.

Guidara is a regular starter for Belgrano at the Argentina top league, but his team has been struggling this season, ranking second-to-last after finishing 13th out of 28 last year.

Albania regularly hires plays of ethnic Albanian roots who were born in Kosovo, Switzerland, Italy and Greece but has been facing tougher rivalry with Kosovo which since mid-2016 has its own national side eligible to play in major competitions following FIFA recognition, in a talent split that has also affected the quality of the Albanian national side.

 

Euro 2020 campaign

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but who have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.

Albania last played Turkey in a friendly in late 2017 to claim a surprise 3-2 away victory, apparently Pannuci’s best game under the lead of the national side. Both Albania and Turkey are equal on their 10 encounters so far with each having claimed four wins and drawn twice since the early 1970s.

“All four [Group H] top teams reached the Euro 2016 and this is the reason it will be a very tough group. The opening game against Turkey is very important as it can give us new equilibrium in the group stage. The target is to make it to the top two so that we can qualify, but we should not forget the reality and understand that Albania is ranked fourth in the group,” says Panucci.

“If we make it and I am convinced that we can, then everybody will be happy, but if we fail and the football association president is not happy, Panucci goes home, but this is the last thing that I think and the important thing is doing my best," he adds.

Few days after the opening game against Turkey, Albania travels to Andorra, the bottom-ranked team in Group H of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The national side are hopeful they will be playing their June 11 home qualifier against Moldova at the under-construction National Arena, the new home of the national side, already in its final stage of construction that is hampered by a €2 million tax dispute with the tax authorities.

Iceland will be another tough opponent for Albania in their bid for a second spot finish having become the smallest nation by population to qualify for the Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup finals, but disappointing in their Nations League campaign last year.

Former Albania coach Gianni De Biasi who led the national side to the finals of France 2016, the national side's first ever appearance to a major tournament, says Albania stands real chances to claim another qualification.

“Albania should believe in the second spot and in qualification. In the Euro 2016 campaign, Portugal had the stature of present-day France but Serbia and Denmark are not like Iceland and Turkey with all due respect [for the latter],” De Biasi has earlier said.

“I believe Albania will rival through the end for a second spot with Island and Turkey,” he adds.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 7 - Albania's football association president Armand Duka has managed to get a seat at the executive committee of UEFA, the European football's governing body, becoming the first Albanian to join UEFA's supreme executive body.

The long-serving Albanian football president was one of the ten male candidates who had applied for seven available seats on the UEFA Eeecutive committee and finished sixth with 36 votes in favour out of 55 European member associations with a right to vote.

Duka's victory comes after a previous failure to get elected with the executive committee in April 2017, soon after he claimed his fifth consecutive four-year term as head of the Albanian football association.

"Honored to be the first to represent Albanian football at the highest UEFA governing body. It's strong trust and responsibility for me and Albanian football," Duka commented on social media.

Duka will serve a four-year term for the 2019-23 period at the UEFA Executive committee.

The 55-year incumbent president and businessman has been in office as the president of Albania’s most popular sport since 2002 and managed to get re-elected for a fifth term in early 2017 when he beat a former Prime Minister and current ruling Socialist Party MP in a tough race.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 6 – Albania’s reigning champions Skenderbeu are officially in crisis after suffering their sixth consecutive Superliga defeat in a situation that reflects financial problems and uncertainties ahead as they await a final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, last year over match-fixing.

Having dominated Albanian football in the past decade and being the sole Albanian club to make it to the group stage of the Europa League competition, Skenderbeu started the 2018-19 campaign as a top favorite and dominated the first 11 Superliga games.

However, the Korça-based club, southeastern Albania, nicknamed “The snow wolves” lost sharp ground last December as they lost all four games.

The critical situation continued even after the winter break as Skenderbeu lost at home to leaders Partizani and was also beaten away to relegation-zone Kastrioti during the past week following the resumption of the Superliga’s second stage on Jan. 25.

Having played 20 games, and with still another 16 to go before the Superliga closes, Skenderbeu have dropped to fifth with 30 points, trailing leaders Partizani by 13 points and with few chances to repeat the 2018 Superliga success which would nevertheless make them ineligible to compete in European competitions due to a UEFA ban in force since March 2018.

The situation reflects key departures from last year’s winning team that continued even in the January transfer window with the transfer of Kosovo international, defender Fidan Aliti, to Sweden's top league side Kalmar for a reported €150,000 on a four-year deal with Skenderbeu retaining a 25 percent stake on the player.

"The departures are hampering our squad, but are justified based on club policies following what happened at European competition," says Orges Shehi, a goalkeeper and captain until a couple of years ago who led Skenderbeu to several trophies before taking over as coach in mid-2018.

"The results have really been not decent for Skenderbeu, but we will do our best to return to victories," Shehi said ahead of an Albania Cup second-leg qualifier with lower-division Beselidhja which Skenderbeu won 3-0 to qualify for the Cup quarter finals where they will meet Superliga rivals, bottom-ranked Kamza.

Skenderbeu claimed their eighth Superliga trophy last season, with seven of their titles earned during the past decade when they dominated Albanian football and became the first ever Albania club to make it to the Europa League group stage with two appearance in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns.

The 10-year ban and a €1 million fine handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, in March 2018 made Skenderbeu ineligible to compete in this season international competition where Albanian clubs failed to make it to the group stage of either the Champions League or Europa League.

UEFA’s disciplinary body handed Skenderbeu the ban over 50 matched the club is suspected to have fixed in the Champions League and Europa League campaigns as well as in the Albanian Superliga and in friendlies since 2011 based on its betting fraud detection system. The new ban follows an earlier 2016-2017 ban from the UEFA Champions League campaign, which the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld following Skenderbeu’s appeal.

Skenderbeu deny claims and are hopeful of overturning the UEFA punishment, the severest ever handed to a European club, but prospects are Skenderbeu could be lucky to get away with a reduction of their 10-year ban which would still place the club’s future at risk.

 

Partizani take advantage

Albania’s Partizani have emerged as top favorites to claim a long-awaited Superliga title this season in what could be a major triumph for an elite Albanian club that has been trophiless at the top flight of the country’s football during the past quarter of a century.

With Skenderbeu on six-game losing streak, the Tirana-based club have ousted their key rival and now hold a comfortable five-point lead over second-placed Kukes, a team with not much history but who have been highly competitive in the past five years in a performance that peaked in 2017 when they claimed their first-ever Superliga trophy.

Partizani easily qualified this week for the last eight of the Albanian Cup and will face in the quarter finals Superliga rivals Luftetari who have lost much of their last season's shine that secured their a first ever Europa League qualifier.

Once the most successful Albanian club under communism, Partizani have struggled since 1993 when they claimed their last top league title in a tough transition period as the country switched to a multi-party system and a market economy following almost five decades under a hardline Stalinist dictatorship.

Partizani take to this year’s campaign in an Albanian-led team after a failed short-term experience with an Italian duo last year.

Partizani’s 2017-18 campaign project with Lucciano Moggi, the former Juventus managing director who is suffering a lifetime ban from Italian football for his role in the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal, and former Juventus player Mark Iuliano who only had a short spell as Partizani coach, failed to produce any result with Partizani ranking fifth and failing to progress through the Europa League qualification campaign last season.

Meanwhile, Albania’s historically most successful club, Tirana, continue facing problems this season following their Superliga comeback after an embarrassing first-ever relegation last year, and rank seventh just five points above relegation-threatened Kastrioti and Kamza thanks to series of positive results in the past few games.

The Albanian Superliga features 10 teams, two of which are relegated following a four-stage 36-game championship.
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Jan. 30 – Failure to settle amicably a tax dispute on the under-construction National Arena stadium, the new home of Albania’s national side in the Albanian capital city Tirana, has taken Albania’s football association and the government to court where football officials are seeking back €2 million in value added tax refunds.

Albania’s football association says failure to get back €2 million in VAT refunds from UEFA funding of €10 million risks the completion of the National Arena stadium. The so called ‘tower stadium’ was initially scheduled to become operational in early 2019 ahead of Albania’s first Euro 2020 qualifiers in March, but delays in construction works and a tax dispute have now postponed plans for initial tests to mid-2019 and the stadium is likely to be ready for next September or November when Albania play their closing home Euro qualifiers against Iceland, Andorra and France.

The legal battle at the first instance Tirana Administrative Court comes after a tax appeals body of the finance ministry turned down a complaint over VAT refunds due to delays in applying with tax authorities to get back the 20 percent amount.

Both the Albanian football association and the government are joint venture partners in the enterprise set up in 2014 to oversee the construction of the new stadium in the country.

The majority 75 percent stake at the “Qendra Sportive Kuq e Zi’ company [The Red and Black sports center named after Albania’s national side jersey] is held by the football association with the remaining 25 percent minority stake held by the Albanian government.

"We were told by tax authorities that our [VAT refund] application was delayed for several days, but I don't think this is the case to cancel it. We appealed it with the finance ministry and it was again refused,” Football Association President Armand Duka said in a TV interview in late December 2018.

“I have talked to the Prime Minister and from the conversation I had with him, he is between two fires. The football association has obtained 100 percent of the stadium funds from UEFA and there can be no such financing where state authorities seek to take advantage of UEFA donations," he added.

According to Duka, last December’s visit to Albania by UEFA’s Secretary General Theodore Theodoridis, who also reportedly met Prime Minister Edi Rama, was also related to the tax dispute over funds donated by the European football’s governing body.

In an announcement on its website, the Tirana Administrative Court says the football association is seeking the cancellation of decisions by the Tirana Regional Directorate and the tax appeals body at the finance ministry and the initial trial was planned for Jan. 22, 2019.

However, unless settled amicably, the legal battle in Albania's three-tier administrative court system could take years due to a huge backlog of cases at the Administrative Appeals Court and the Administrative College of the Supreme Court, currently both functioning with limited staff due to a judiciary reform having ousted several judges for failing to justify their assets and delays in the establishment of the new justice bodies leading to key vacancies.

With construction works already in their final stage following the mid-2016 demolition of the old “Qemal Stafa” stadium, the football association has earlier warned failure to get back the €2 million tax refund would call the stadium completion into question.

The football association has hinted of politically motivated reasons behind the blockage, apparently related to incumbent football association head Armand Duka claiming a fifth consecutive term of office in early 2018 in a contested race by main rival Bashkim Fino, a former Prime Minister and current ruling Socialist Party MP.

 

New ‘tower’ stadium

The new ‘National Arena’ stadium is a €50 million public private partnership deal with a capacity of 22,000 seats that will also feature commercial, entertainment and accommodation facilities in a high-rise tower next to it. The Albanian football association has invested €10 million through UEFA funding.

An Albanian-owned company has invested €40 million to build the stadium in return for being offered public land and a permit to build a 24-storey tower next to it that will host commercial facilities, including a hotel that will be managed by US-based hotel giant Marriott International through a franchise deal with the developers, benefiting tax cuts as a high-end tourism investment in a popular downtown Tirana area.

The new National Arena stadium is being built on the site of former ‘Qemal Stafa’ stadium in Tirana, which ceased being used for international matches in 2013 after failing to meet international standards. Unlike the old stadium, the new facility has no athletics track, a key barrier for some of Albania’s athletes like Luiza Gega, a medal-winning middle-distance runner.

Former ‘Qemal Stafa’ stadium served as Albania’s national stadium for over 70 years since 1946 when it was inaugurated for the Balkan Cup as an Italian-designed facility.

Lacking a permanent home, the Albanian national football team has in the past five years played their home matches at the newly reconstructed Elbasan Arena and Shkodra stadiums, both reconstructed through government funding of around €14 million.

The Albanian football association which has invested around €10 million in the stadium project through UEFA funds will also get considerable facilities, but not have its headquarters there. The new football association headquarters that will also serve as an accommodation center for the national side are already being built elsewhere in Tirana at a former sports complex.

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but who have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.

Having missed a chance to keep qualifying hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C, Group 1, and having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania will be trying for another miracle qualification in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Jan. 23 – Albania’s retired captain Lorik Cana says the difficult moment that Albania has been facing following the major France 2016 appearance is also a result of ethnic Albanian talents having split into two national sides following Kosovo’s recognition by European and world governing football bodies.

“They naturally represent Kosovo and automatically affect the quality of the Albanian national side which I believe has been through a transition period of what we want it to be in the long-run. It’s quite normal that a body gets weaker when half of blood flowing into it is missing,” says Cana, an internationally renowned former Kosovo-Albanian player who played top clubs in Italy and France and led Albania to a first-ever appearance at a major tournament such as the Euro 2016.

Rivalry over acquiring new talents of ethnic Albanian roots has been getting tough in the past couple of years, with some of the best players of Kosovo roots often picking the Kosovo national side.

In August 2016, soon after Kosovo was admitted as a FIFA member, three players of Kosovo roots, among whom Milot Rashica, a current Werder Bremen attacking midfielder at the German Bundesliga, left Albania for Kosovo, marking the first talent row between the two neighboring countries.

Almost half of Albania’s senior national side’s 24 men are of Kosovo-Albanian roots, and there are also players who were born in Switzerland, making them eligible to play for three national sides with Switzerland often coming as the first choice, followed by Albania and Kosovo.

The Xhaka and Ajeti brothers are split between Switzerland and Albania, making them unique in Europe.

Back in mid-2016, Arsenal playmaker and Swiss international Granit Xhaka and his elder Basel and Albanian international player Taulant became Europe’s first two brothers to face each other in a Euro 2016 final group stage fixture when debutant Albania played Switzerland.

Last December, Albania’s under-21s were drawn against Kosovo for the 2021 European Championship qualifiers in the first official encounter between the two neighboring Albanian-speaking countries since Kosovo’s 2016 admission as a UEFA and FIFA member. Both Albania and Kosovo face a tough challenge in a qualifying group that features three tougher rivals such as England, Austria and Turkey and modest Andorra.

Speaking with a Kosovo TV, former Albanian captain Cana says Europe’s newest national side has a golden chance to make it to the finals of Euro 2020 through its Nations League option, having secured a top spot in League D, Group 3 and facing opponents such as Macedonia, Georgia and Belarus if failing to make it through the traditional qualifiers where it needs to secure a top two finish.

Kosovo’s senior national side wrote history in their debut Nations League campaign last year, claiming promotion to League C and standing another chance for qualification to the Euro 2020 final stage, in a major success only few years after being admitted as UEFA and FIFA member following its independence from Serbia a decade ago.

Meanwhile, Albania failed to impress, missing a chance to keep qualifying hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C, Group 1. Having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania will be trying for another miracle qualification in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

The now 35-year-old former defender and midfielder quit international and club football in mid-2016 in premature retirement following health problems, but is remembered as an inspirational captain who led Albania to a major success under former Albania coach, Italian Gianni De Biasi.

Commenting on Albania’s lukewarm performance under coach Christian Panucci, the former Albania captain says the Italian should be given more time until the end of this year when Albania plays the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

“Panucci is a coach with a strong desire to achieve things but not everything has been going well for him. When taking over a team that made it to the final stage of the European championship, it’s too difficult to keep up the high level, especially when a young coach. Panucci now has more information and experience and he will be judged at the end of the qualifiers,” says Cana.

Having been in charge of Albania since mid-2017, under-fire Panucci was given another chance to lead Albania through the Euro 2020 qualifiers despite the national side's poor track record under his lead, having lost eight out of 14 games since taking over in mid-2017.

Panucci has blamed the situation on key players missing either because of injury or retirement and few playing opportunities with their clubs and has called up several new players as reinforcements, but only a couple of them have convinced.

Cana who now lives in Tirana together with his Italian wife and three-year-old son is attending a sporting director training course with the Albania’s football association, and has hinted he wants to embark on a career discovering new talents that could serve the Albanian national side.

Born in Kosovo, but raised in Switzerland, Cana began his professional career in France with Paris Saint Germain and also played for Marseille, Sunderland and Galatasaray before moving to Italy with Lazio in 2011 where he played four seasons.

He was a regular starter with the national side and much of the success in the Euro 2016 qualifiers is also dedicated to him.

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but who have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.
                    [post_title] => Talent split affecting Albania’s national side, says ex-captain Cana
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                    [post_date] => 2019-01-16 11:57:09
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Jan. 16 – Albanian international Armando Sadiku is back to Switzerland following a disappointing one-and-a-half year spell at Poland and Spain top leagues marred by few playing opportunities and injuries that kept him off the pitch for a long time.

The 27-year-old striker has joined Switzerland’s Lugano, a team he played for about two years during 2012-2014 and half a season in 2017 before moving to Poland’s Legia Warsaw.

The transfer to Lugano, a team Sadiku considers his home is good news for the player himself who has been recovering from knee surgery following an injury in August 2018 and the Albanian national side that will have back its best striker of the past decade as it prepares for the major Euro 2020 qualifiers following a disappointing Nations League campaign.

No financial details have been disclosed from the transfer deal, but Spain’s Levante says they have let the player join on a buyback clause.

Sadiku played only six games with Levante since joining in January 2018 from Poland’s Legia Warsaw in one of his worst seasons also marred by a knee injury that ultimately put him out of the Levante’s plans.

His experience at Spain’s La Liga was more disappointing compared to Legia Warsaw where he spent half a season until January 2018, but scored seven goals in a performance that led to a €1 million transfer deal to Levante.

"I am happy to be back with Lugano. I have been receiving knee treatment for five months and I have been back training with Levante for one month and am ready to play now. I have been through some difficult months but now I am psychologically fit and want to give my best,” Sadiku has told Swiss media.

"The unfavorable experiences in Poland and Spain gave me more strength and made me get back to the highest levels,” he adds.

Sadiku joins Levante at a difficult moment at a time when the Swiss side are struggling just above the relegation zone with 19 points from 18 matches, ranking 8th in the ten-team Swiss Super League.

He joins Lugano in a bid to repeat his 2017 success when he helped them finish third and earn Europa League appearance on a half-a season loan from Zurich, scoring nine goals to help the Swiss side climb from relegation zone to a surprise top three.

Sadiku has been a key player for the national side since joining in 2012 and his absence during the second half of last year was blamed by Italian coach Chritian Panucci as one of the key reasons for the national side’s lukewarm performance at the Nations League.

The 27-year-old striker has scored 11 goals in 33 appearances with the national side helping Albania achieve a first-ever qualification at a major tournament such as Euro 2016. He also scored Albania’s sole goal at the Euro 2016 group stage games as Albania beat Romania 1-0 but failed to make it the knockout stage.

Having started his career in his hometown of Elbasan, central Albania, Sadiku played in Switzerland for six years with clubs such as Zurich and Lugano before joining Legia Warsaw in July 2017 and Levante in January 2018.

His comeback at a team such as Lugano where he is guaranteed as a starter will also help him get back to shape and earn a place at the national side ahead of the Euro 2020 kickoff.

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much a much more experienced national side, but which have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.

Albania have been drawn in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying campaign group stage with reigning world champions France and will apparently be fighting for a second spot with Iceland and Turkey in a bid to repeat their 2016 success when they earned a first ever qualification to the finals of a major tournament.
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                    [post_content] => albania 2By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Dec. 14 – Albania’s under-21s have been drawn against Kosovo for the 2021 European Championship qualifiers in the first official encounter between the two neighboring Albanian-speaking countries since Kosovo’s 2016 admission as a UEFA and FIFA member.

Both Albania and Kosovo face a tough challenge in a qualifying group that features three tougher rivals such as England, Austria and Turkey and modest Andorra.

Albania and Kosovo will play their first Group 3 qualifier on Oct. 15, 2019 in what will be Albania's fifth qualifier after opening their qualifying campaign on March 23 with a home fixture against Turkey.

The local ‘Albanian derby’ comes at a time when rivalry between the two national sides over picking players of Albanian roots has become tougher since 2016 after Kosovo was admitted as a full FIFA member and Kosovo’s senior national side wrote history in their debut Nations League campaign by claiming promotion to League C and standing another chance for qualification to the Euro 2020 final stage in case of failing to make it through the traditional qualifiers format.

Albania’s senior and U21 national sides feature several players of Kosovo roots, but Albania’s lackluster performances following the major France 2016 appearance and Kosovo in better shape during the past year, have made the Albanian national side no longer a top choice for many key players of Kosovo roots with rivalry over top talents of ethnic Albanian roots getting tougher.

Not hiding rivalry, Albania’s U21 coach Alban Bushi considers the qualifier as a game that has to be won, the same like every other group stage qualifier.

"I received Kosovo like every other team, we will try hard. There are three or four players who said they would be joining us, but then changed their mind and picked Kosovo. It was their choice," says 45-year-old Bushi, a former Albanian international.

"The encounter against Kosovo will be tough, like with every other team. It's like the other teams and it has to be won," Bushi has told a local sports portal.

Albania’s U21s who also feature several players of ethnic Albanian Kosovo and Macedonian roots take to the Euro 2021 qualifiers following a disappointing campaign for the Euro 2018 qualifiers as they finished second from bottom in a tough group stage led by Spain

Kosovo's U21 coach Rafet Prekazi says he considers the special fixture a brotherly encounter that has to be played professionally.

"Of course we are brothers, but now we are two separate teams and the players and I consider this only a football match," Prekazi has told Kosovo media.

Kosovo’s U21 also take to the Euro 2021 qualifiers after finishing second from bottom in their debut Euro qualifiers in a tough group stage led by Germany, but collecting five points more compared to Albania.

The last time the two U21 national sides played each other was at a January 2016 friendly that ended in a 1-1 draw.

Meanwhile, the last time the two senior national sides faced each other was in a friendly in late May 2018 when Kosovo thrashed Albania 3-0 in a local derby that saw tough rivalry on the pitch.

Nine group winners plus co-hosts Hungary and Slovenia directly qualify for U21 Euro 2021 while the two best runners-up advance to the play-offs for a final spot.

The Albania U21s will play their first leg encounter against England on Nov. 15, 2019.

The U-21 Euro 2021 qualifiers take place between March 2019 and October 2020, with the 2019 schedule corresponding to Albania’s senior national side's Euro 2020 qualifying campaign against France, Iceland and Turkey.

 

Rivalry over senior talents 

Almost half of Albania’s senior national side’s 24 men are of Kosovo-Albanian roots, and there are also players who were born in Switzerland, making them eligible to play for three national sides with Switzerland often coming as the first choice, followed by Albania and Kosovo.

In August 2016, soon after Kosovo was admitted as a FIFA member, three players of Kosovo roots, among whom Milot Rashica, a current Werder Bremen attacking midfielder at the German Bundesliga, left Albania for Kosovo, marking the first talent row between the two neighboring countries.

Kosovo’s Swiss coach, Bernard Challandes, says rivalry with Albania over convincing players of Kosovo roots to play for Kosovo is a big problem for him and faces fierce competition with Albania and their Italian coach Christian Panucci.

“Competition with Albania is not a small problem for me. Both Panucci and I are aware about this and try hard about good players,” Challandes, an experienced Swiss coach, said earlier this year ahead of an Albania-Kosovo friendly.

Meanwhile, Albania’s Italian coach Christian Panucci says rivalry is not only with Kosovo but also with Switzerland, where dozens of players of Albanian roots play.

“As far as talents are concerned, Albanians are divided into three countries and I have my scouts with whom I try to follow everybody. Then, if I see good elements, I introduce them with the call to join Albania, but the choice is in their hand,” Panucci has earlier said.

The Xhaka brothers are unique in Europe with the younger Arsenal playmaker and Swiss international Granit Xhaka and his elder Basel and Albanian international player becoming Europe’s first two brothers to face each other in a Euro 2016 final group stage fixture when debutant Albania played Switzerland.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Dec. 10 – Albania’s Partizani have emerged as top favorites to claim a long-awaited Superliga title this season in what could be a major triumph for an elite Albanian club that has been trophiless at the top flight of the country’s football during the past quarter of a century.

The Tirana-based club extended their Superliga lead to five points last weekend as they drew away to Teuta and main rivals, reigning champions Skenderbeu, the club that has dominated Albanian football during the past decade, suffered their second consecutive defeat.

Skenderbeu lost away to Kukes last weekend, in their third straight game without a win, reflecting uncertainties over the club’s future as they await a final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban handed earlier this year by European football governing body, UEFA, over match-fixing.

With the Switzerland-based court not having announced a date yet on the final say over Skenderbeu’s European competition future, chances are that the decision, the severest-ever handed to a European club, will be upheld or only slightly reduced, compromising Skenderbeu’s future as a leader in Albanian football.

Skenderbeu, who lost many of their key players this season over financial cuts, have been going through tough times over the past three weeks following a good season start, dominating until a few weeks ago.

Tirana-based Partizani, who have decently rivalled Skenderbeu at the Albanian Superliga during the past few years, are taking advantage of Skenderbeu’s recent poor form and are now top favorites to claim a long-awaited title.

Once the most successful Albanian club under communism, Partizani have struggled since 1993 when they claimed their last top league title in a tough transition period as the country switched to a multi-party system and a market economy following almost five decades under a hardline Stalinist dictatorship.

Having dominated the Albanian top league until the early 1990s with 15 titles, Partizani have been mostly uncompetitive during the past 25 years, and even spent several seasons in inferior leagues, but did not lose the popularity they enjoyed under communism as a club affiliated with the Albanian army and boasting fans all over the country. Partizani only claimed two Albanian Cup trophies during the past 25 years and turned competitive only in the 2015-2017 campaigns when they finished second.

The Reds are now two games short of being crowned Superliga winter champions and face a tough test against third-placed Kukes, the surprise 2017 champions, in a home encounter set for Friday, Dec. 14.

Partizani feature goalkeeper Alban Hoxha, the sole domestic league player to receive a call-up for the Albanian national side by Italian coach Christian Panucci.

Last summer, Partizani signed So Hyon-uk, a North Korean international who played as a midfielder in top Bosnian and Serbian leagues for a couple of seasons before moving to Albania last summer, when he became the first-ever player from isolated North-Korea to play in Albania.

Partizani’s top scorer so far this season is Jasir Asani, an ethnic Albanian from neighbouring Macedonia, who has scored four goals for the Reds.

The club is coached by Skender Gega, a former Partizani player who also managed the Albania U19 and U21 teams from 2011 to 2015.

"I think we are on track. Last year, there was much fanfare from new arrivals, but it's much quieter now. I am pleased with this group of players, we have no pressure to become champions but the desire is so strong and time will tell," Gega said last August ahead of the championship's kick off, few months after taking over as new Partizani coach.

Partizani take to this year’s campaign in an Albanian-led team after a failed short-term experience with an Italian duo last year.

Partizani’s 2017-18 campaign project with Lucciano Moggi, the former Juventus managing director who is suffering a lifetime ban from Italian football for his role in the 2006 ‘Calciopoli’ match-fixing scandal, and former Juventus player Mark Iuliano who only had a short spell as Partizani coach, failed to produce any result with Partizani ranking fifth and failing to progress through the Europa League qualification campaign last season.

Meanwhile, Albania’s historically most successful club, Tirana, continue facing problems this season following their Superliga comeback after an embarrassing first-ever relegation last year.

Last October, Tirana sacked Brazilian coach Ze Maria who led them to Superliga promotion, but managed to get only six points in the last eight games under a new Albanian coach to see themselves rank seventh, just above the relegation zone and its Superliga stay still uncertain under lackluster performances.

Durres-based Teuta are also decently rivalling this year, ranking fourth and trailing leaders Partizani by six points this year after hardly managing to escape relegation last season.

However, with 20 other matchdays to go and new reinforcements expected in the winter transfer window, everything is likely to remain uncertain amid tough rivalry by three clubs and the winner be decided only by the end of May 2019 when the championship officially ends.

The Albanian Superliga features 10 teams, two of which are relegated following a four-stage 36-game championship.

 

Skenderbeu’s future at risk

Uncertainties over the final say by Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport over a 10-year European competition ban, continue to keep the situation tense at Korça-based Skenderbeu whose players had been promised revised contracts by late 2018 when the club initially expected a final say.

In case the severe ban is upheld, or only slightly revised, the finances of Albania’s most successful club on European stage, could receive a severe blow and Skenderbeu, will apparently no longer afford key players and rival for the Superliga title without key European competition income.

Skenderbeu claimed their eighth Superliga trophy last season, with seven of their titles earned during the past decade when they dominated Albanian football and became the first ever Albania club to make it to the Europa League group stage with two appearance in the 2015-16 and 2017-18 campaigns.

The 10-year ban and a €1 million fine handed by European football’s governing body, UEFA, in March 2018 made Skenderbeu ineligible to compete in this season international competition where Albanian clubs failed to make it to the group stage of either the Champions League or Europa League.

UEFA’s disciplinary body handed Skenderbeu the ban over 50 matched the club is suspected to have fixed in the Champions League and Europa League campaigns as well as in the Albanian Superliga and in friendlies since 2011 based on its betting fraud detection system. The new ban follows an earlier 2016-2017 ban from the UEFA Champions League campaign, which the Court of Arbitration for Sport upheld following Skenderbeu’s appeal.

Skenderbeu deny claims and are hopeful of overturning the UEFA punishment, the severest ever handed to a European club, but prospects are Skenderbeu could be lucky to get away with a reduction of their 10-year ban.
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Dec. 3 – Albania have been drawn in a tough Euro 2020 qualifying campaign group stage with reigning world champions France and will apparently be fighting for a second spot with Iceland and Turkey in a bid to repeat their 2016 success when they earned a first ever qualification to the finals of a major tournament.

Having missed a chance to keep qualifying hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C, Group 1, and having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania will be trying for another miracle qualification in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

Moldova and Andorra are also featured in Group H of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign that will be held over ten matchdays from March to November 2019 with Albania playing the first qualifier at home to Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but which has been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s. Albania last played Turkey in a friendly in late 2017 to claim a surprise 3-2 away victory. Both teams are equal on their 10 encounters so far with each having claimed four wins and drawn twice since the early 1970s.

Iceland will be another tough opponent for Albania in their bid for a second spot finish having become the smallest nation by population to qualify for the Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup finals, but disappointing in their Nations League campaign this year, finishing bottom and failing to claim any points in encounters with Switzerland and Belgium.

Albania and Iceland have played each other five times since the early 1990s with the tiny Island of 340,000 residents having claimed three victories compared to two for Albania. Iceland beat Albania 2-1 both on home soil and away in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers to finish second in the group stage, but lost to Croatia in the playoffs and failed to reach their first major finals.

Albania also made it to the Euro 2016 finals in their first ever appearance at a major tournament in a tough group stage with Portugal, the reigning European champions, Denmark and Serbia, finishing second to earn direct qualification.

Albania ended their historic debut in a major football tournament in a dramatic disqualification filled with suspense after the national side was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage of the Euro 2016 as one of the four best third-placed teams.

Albania, who collected three points in their group stage fixtures following a victory with Romania and losses against hosts France and Switzerland were punished by their -2 goal difference.

However, Albania disappointed in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign finishing third in a tough group stage where it couldn't do much against former world and European champions Spain and Italy, the latter also failing to qualify for the first time in six decades at the finals of a World Cup after losing a playoff with Sweden.

The national side's disappointment continued in the Nations League campaign with Albania collecting only a home victory with Israel and finishing bottom in a group stage topped by Scotland who will be given another chance for the Euro 2020 should they fail to qualify through the traditional format.

The poor performances nearly led to the dismissal of Albania's Italian coach Christian Panucci, who has been in charge since mid-2017 succeeding compatriot Gianni De Biasi, but has lost eight out of 14 games since taking over in one of Albania's poorest ever performance which the coach has justified with key absences and a new generation of players replacing former veterans of the Euro 2016 campaign.

 

Reactions at home 

Speaking after the draw, coach Christian Panucci described reigning world champions France as the absolute favorites and said Albania will be fighting for a second spot with Turkey and Island.

"The draw could have been better or worse, but we will work to achieve the impossible. France are the favorites. I see Albania fighting for a second spot with Turkey and Iceland," said the 45-year coach who has been under continuous pressure this year following a series of lackluster performances.

Albania recently got a morale-boosting win against Wales following a humiliating 4-0 home defeat against Scotland earlier in November to relive pressure on Panucci, a former Italian international who played for top European clubs, but had little coaching experience when taking over as Albania coach.

Former Albania coach Gianni De Biasi who led the national side to the finals of France 2016, the national side's first ever appearance to a major tournament, says Albania stands real chances to claim another qualification.

"Albania should believe in the second spot and in qualification. In the Euro 2016 campaign, Portugal had the stature of present-day France but Serbia and Denmark are not like Iceland and Turkey with all due respect [for the latter],” says De Biasi.

“I believe Albania will rival through the end for a second spot with Island and Turkey," De Biasi, mostly jobless since leaving Albania has told local media.

Chances for Albania to make it to the Euro 2020 are only through the traditional format of the upcoming qualifiers where they need to secure a top two finish in order to repeat their 2016 historic first ever qualification to a major tournament.

 

Kosovo’s campaign

Having claimed a surprise but convincing Nations League promotion in their League D, Group 3, Kosovo will also be playing in a tough qualifying campaign with England, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Romania and Montenegro in the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

One of the world’s youngest national sides, having been admitted as UEFA and FIFA member only in 2016, Kosovo claimed historic success at the Nations League campaign, topping their group and standing another chance to qualify as one of its league’s best teams even in case of failing a top two finish in the traditional format.

Many of Albania’s national side’s players are of Kosovo roots with encounters between the two teams hailed as a local derby.

 

Euro 2020 campaign

Twenty-four teams will reach the Euro 2020 finals with four places to be decided by the UEFA Nations League play-offs in March 2020.

Twenty teams, the top two in each of the ten groups, reach the tournament via the traditional qualifiers, running from March to November 2019.

The Euro 2020 finals will be held in 12 host cities across the continent in celebration of the competition's 60-year history.

 

GROUP H

FRANCE

ICELAND

TURKEY

ALBANIA

MOLDOVA

ANDORRA

 

MATCHDAY ONE

Friday 22 March, 2019 - Albania v Turkey

MATCHDAY TWO

Monday 25 March - Andorra v Albania

MATCHDAY THREE

Saturday 8 June - Iceland v Albania

MATCHDAY FOUR

Tuesday 11 June - Albania v Moldova

 MATCHDAY FIVE

Saturday 7 September - France v Albania

MATCHDAY SIX

Tuesday 10 September - Albania v Iceland

MATCHDAY SEVEN

Thursday 10 October - Turkey v Albania

MATCHDAY EIGHT

Monday 14 October - Moldova v Albania

 MATCHDAY NINE

Thursday 14 November - Albania v Andorra

MATCHDAY TEN

Sunday 17 November - Albania v France
                    [post_title] => Albania target Euro 2020 finals through second spot finish in tough qualifying group 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 22 – Albania’s football association has confirmed Christian Panucci will be given another chance as Albania coach and lead the Red & Black through the Euro 2020 qualifiers despite the national side’s poor track record under the Italian’s lead during the past one and a half years.

The confirmation comes after Albania closed their Nations League campaign with a humiliating 4-0 home loss against Scotland but claimed a hard-earned win in a friendly against Wales this week that somehow relieved pressure on under-fire Panucci following a series of poor performances, having lost eight out of 14 games since taking over in mid-2017.

Albania's football association president Armand Duka says firing Panucci few months before the Euro qualifiers would be a hasty decision and luxury a modest national side such as Albania cannot afford.

"It is not time for hasty decisions. Panucci has his pros and cons. We can't afford the luxury of changing coaches at a time when the Euro qualifiers start next March. We remain a modest team and can do better if everybody supports the coach and the staff for the Euro qualifiers," Duka, who has been in charge of Albania’s football association for the past sixteen years, has told a local TV.

The head of Albania’s football association says the national sides looks consolidated now and has gained key players such as Ardian Ismajli and Myrto Uzuni, two Croatia top league players, in tests during the past few games.

Panucci, who was hired on a two-and-a-half year €280,000 contract, had been set a Euro 2020 qualification target whose first opportunity he missed with Albania finishing bottom in League C Group 1. Firing him before his contracts ends in November 2019, would also have financial consequences for the football association.

The upcoming Euro 2020 qualifiers are set to begin in March 2019 after ten groups are drawn in early December 2018.

 

Also read: Morale-boosting win against Wales saves Panucci from early Albania departure
                    [post_title] => Albania reconfirms Panucci for Euro 2020 qualifiers
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Feb. 11 – Albania’s Italian coach is confident a switch to a more defensive football and some key players making a comeback following injury could see Albania make it through another miracle qualification for the Euro 2020, the same as they did in the 2016 qualifiers when they earned their first-ever appearance at a major competition.

Christian Panucci, who has been in charge of Albania since mid-2017, was reconfirmed as Albania coach in November 2018 despite failing at the inaugural UEFA Nations League campaign and losing a series of friendlies in lackluster performance that irritated both fans and football pundits.

However, the former Italy international who played top European clubs but had little experience as a coach when succeeding compatriot De Biasi who led Albania to France 2016, believes key absences from the former De Biasi and a more attacking football he was experimenting with were the key reasons behind failure.

With slightly more than a month to go before Albania takes on the opening qualifier, a home encounter against Turkey, Panucci believes Albania can make it to the top two in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

Having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania missed a chance to keep Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C Group 1 that also featured Scotland and Israel.

Assuming responsibility for the poor results under what he calls a ‘test period,’ the 45-year-old Italian believes a more defensive football like Albania used to play under De Biasi and newly recovered key players who missed most of the 2018 games, will give a boost to Albania’s Euro 2020 prospects.

“2018 was terrible and ugly. Albania is recovering some key players and we hope 2019 will provide some good results. I had unveiled we would be experimenting in one and a half years. We didn't receive positive reaction and will now start over safer switching more backwards. We will have a defensive team which could lead us to success,” Panucci has told a local TV.

Albania has lost eight out of 14 games under Panucci, most of which friendlies but also three Nations League qualifiers against Scotland and Israel, in one of the poorest track records in decades, placing the Italian under constant pressure and making his stay uncertain until last November when Albania claimed a morale booster in a home friendly against tougher Wales.

“I have noticed that when I asked the team to play more open football, we were so fragile. Now we have to close the gaps and be more compact. On our way, because of injuries or suspensions, there will be new players receiving a call, but we already have our group,” says Panucci.

The Italian has called up 22 new players since mid-2017, but only a handful are expected to receive fresh calls for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The recovery of striker Armando Sadiku who recently moved back to Switzerland following failed short-term spells in Poland and Spain and right winger Odise Roshi leaving behind a knee injury and restarting training in Russia are good news for the Albanian national side.

In addition, Elseid Hysaj is back to the starting eleven with top Italian side Napoli and striker Sokol Cikalleshi has regained shape, scoring in the top Turkish top league.

Two goalkeepers that regularly start with Lazio and Atalanta in the Italian Serie A are also a strength, but the defence and midfield remain weak points that Panucci has to settle.

Panucci believes that just like his predecessor De Biasi, who had a tough start with the national side, he can do better.

“I am really happy to be Albania's coach. Of course I am not happy with the 2018 results, but I am proud to be the coach of this country. One thing is for sure. When I chose the Albanian national side, it was one of the toughest European sides one could pick. That was because it had already qualified for the European championship and under those circumstances you needed to either be mad or have much confidence. And I am still convinced that this team could still do pretty well,” Panucci has said.

 

Argentinian “Arberesh” 

Tomas Guidara could become the first Argentina-born player to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian roots. The 22-year-old Argentinian currently plays as a defender for top Argentina league side Belgrano and could become eligible to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian “Arberesh” parents who migrated to Argentina from Italy. Southern Italy is the host of a centuries-old Albanian minority who moved there in the 15th century following the death of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, and the Ottomans resuming control of the country after being ousted for a quarter of century.

“Tomas Guidara is an Arberesh, I have talked to him. He is a right-back and currently his family and the football association are negotiating to reach a deal. Procedures have already kicked off and he could be handed the Albanian passport and is willing to come. I have also had cases of other players initially accepting and then changing their minds, but I will tell you more when he gets the Albanian passport,” Panucci has said about the Argentina-based player.

Guidara is a regular starter for Belgrano at the Argentina top league, but his team has been struggling this season, ranking second-to-last after finishing 13th out of 28 last year.

Albania regularly hires plays of ethnic Albanian roots who were born in Kosovo, Switzerland, Italy and Greece but has been facing tougher rivalry with Kosovo which since mid-2016 has its own national side eligible to play in major competitions following FIFA recognition, in a talent split that has also affected the quality of the Albanian national side.

 

Euro 2020 campaign

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but who have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.

Albania last played Turkey in a friendly in late 2017 to claim a surprise 3-2 away victory, apparently Pannuci’s best game under the lead of the national side. Both Albania and Turkey are equal on their 10 encounters so far with each having claimed four wins and drawn twice since the early 1970s.

“All four [Group H] top teams reached the Euro 2016 and this is the reason it will be a very tough group. The opening game against Turkey is very important as it can give us new equilibrium in the group stage. The target is to make it to the top two so that we can qualify, but we should not forget the reality and understand that Albania is ranked fourth in the group,” says Panucci.

“If we make it and I am convinced that we can, then everybody will be happy, but if we fail and the football association president is not happy, Panucci goes home, but this is the last thing that I think and the important thing is doing my best," he adds.

Few days after the opening game against Turkey, Albania travels to Andorra, the bottom-ranked team in Group H of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The national side are hopeful they will be playing their June 11 home qualifier against Moldova at the under-construction National Arena, the new home of the national side, already in its final stage of construction that is hampered by a €2 million tax dispute with the tax authorities.

Iceland will be another tough opponent for Albania in their bid for a second spot finish having become the smallest nation by population to qualify for the Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup finals, but disappointing in their Nations League campaign last year.

Former Albania coach Gianni De Biasi who led the national side to the finals of France 2016, the national side's first ever appearance to a major tournament, says Albania stands real chances to claim another qualification.

“Albania should believe in the second spot and in qualification. In the Euro 2016 campaign, Portugal had the stature of present-day France but Serbia and Denmark are not like Iceland and Turkey with all due respect [for the latter],” De Biasi has earlier said.

“I believe Albania will rival through the end for a second spot with Island and Turkey,” he adds.
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