Skenderbeu’s Europa League hopes suffer blow after Partizan Belgrade defeat

Skenderbeu’s Europa League hopes suffer blow after Partizan Belgrade defeat

TIRANA, Nov. 2 – Skenderbeu’s hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League received a major setback on Thursday night as Albania’s most successful club of the past decade were beaten 2-0 by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade

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Albania’s Skenderbeu held to goalless draw in smooth fixture with Partizan Belgrade

Albania’s Skenderbeu held to goalless draw in smooth fixture with Partizan Belgrade

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Oct. 20 – Skenderbeu were held to a goalless draw on Thursday night by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade in a tough home encounter for the Europa League group stage where Serbian fans were banned to support their

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Juventus star handed ‘ban’ to take penalty kicks against Albanian keepers after missing twice

Juventus star handed ‘ban’ to take penalty kicks against Albanian keepers after missing twice

TIRANA, Oct. 16 – Juventus’s Argentinian forward Paulo Dybala, regarded as the most decent Lionel Messi successor, has missed two penalty kicks in the past two weeks in Italy’s Serie A and it was Albanian goalkeepers in both cases who

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Albania lined up in tough rivalry division with Serbia, Greece for maiden UEFA Nations League

Albania lined up in tough rivalry division with Serbia, Greece for maiden UEFA Nations League

TIRANA, Oct. 12 – Albania has been lined up in League C of the maiden UEFA Nations League, a tournament that largely replaces friendlies but which will also play a major part in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign by deciding

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Italy claim hard-earned win against Albania to get seeded for World Cup play-offs

Italy claim hard-earned win against Albania to get seeded for World Cup play-offs

TIRANA, Oct. 10 – Albania concluded their World Cup qualifying campaign with a narrow 1-0 loss against four-time world champions Italy, finishing third in a tough group stage dominated by Spain who automatically qualified for Russia 2018. The national side

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Albania tightens security ahead of Italy qualifier over fears of possible terror incidents

Albania tightens security ahead of Italy qualifier over fears of possible terror incidents

TIRANA, Oct. 9 – Albania will conclude their World Cup qualifying campaign on Monday night in a tough home qualifier against neighboring Italy, one of Europe’s toughest sides, under tight security measures over fears of possible terror incidents. Albanian police

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Albania calls up reinforcements for final Spain, Italy qualifiers

Albania calls up reinforcements for final Spain, Italy qualifiers

TIRANA, Oct. 2 – Coach Christian Pannuci has called up some reinforcements for Albania’s last two World Cup qualifiers against European superpowers Spain and Italy in a bid to surprise the group leaders and preserve the current third spot. The

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Skenderbeu claim first group stage point to keep Europa League qualification hopes alive

Skenderbeu claim first group stage point to keep Europa League qualification hopes alive

TIRANA, Sept. 29 – Albania’s Skenderbeu claimed their first Europa League point as they were held to 1-1 draw by Switzerland’s Young Boys in their second group stage game to keep their knockout stage qualification hopes alive. In their first

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Albania brace for tough Spain, Italy tests in final World Cup qualifiers

Albania brace for tough Spain, Italy tests in final World Cup qualifiers

By Ervin Lisaku TIRANA, Sept. 27 – Albania will conclude their World Cup qualifying campaign with two tough qualifiers against Spain and Italy, two of Europe’s toughest national sides, in a bid to preserve their third place in Group G

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One point in two matches, Partizani like 18 years ago

One point in two matches, Partizani like 18 years ago

Partizani, trained by Mark Iuliano, remains the only team in the Superior League not to score a goal in the first two matches, as it was defeated 2-0 at home from Laç and tied with Kukës (0-0). One has to

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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 2 - Skenderbeu's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League received a major setback on Thursday night as Albania's most successful club of the past decade were beaten 2-0 by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade in an away encounter held under tight security measures.

The loss in Belgrade leaves Skenderbeu bottom in Group B with 2 points, trailing third-placed Swiss Young Boys by 1 point and Partizan Belgrade by 3 points. Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv beat Young Boys 1-0 in an away victory that mathematically secured their knockout stage qualification with a five-point lead over now second-placed Partizan Belgrade.

With two other games to go, qualification hopes for Skenderbeu who face difficult encounters against the Ukrainians and the Swiss in their final group stage matches, are quite slim and only two victories could see the Albanian club progress to the next round as the second best Group B team.

Having held Partizan Belgrade to a goalless draw at home in the first leg tie, Skenderbeu paid dear for their defensive mistakes, especially in the second goal when two of its best player, captain and goalkeeper Orges Shehi and midfielder Sabien Lilaj provided an assist for the Partizani striker following a misunderstanding.

The same to the Albania encounter, away fans were banned to attend the game on security grounds in UEFA-proposed measured following a drone incident at the Belgrade stadium in late 2014 in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier, leading to the game’s suspension.

The match was played under tight security with heavy police presence cited as a concern with a psychological effect on Skenderbeu’s performance.

"There was no problem during the match, but when you see so much police presence, that is not the appropriate environment for a football match," said Skenderbeu’s coach Ilir Daja.

Local media reported there were also racist chants by Partizani supporters, which could trigger possible punishment by European football’s governing body, UEFA.

In last month’s first-leg encounter, Skenderbeu were fined €60,000 by UEFA over illicit chants, fireworks and racist behaviour and also ordered to play their next Europa League home game behind closed doors.

Skenderbeu will play at home against Dynamo Kyiv on Nov. 23 before concluding their group stage away to Switzerland's Young Boys on December 7.

Skenderbeu return to European competition after a one-year ban imposed by European football governing body, UEFA, on match-fixing allegations in the 2015-2016 Champions and Europa League campaigns, making history as the only Albanian club to have made it in the final stage of European competitions.
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Oct. 20 – Skenderbeu were held to a goalless draw on Thursday night by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade in a tough home encounter for the Europa League group stage where Serbian fans were banned to support their team on security grounds.

Albania’s sole Europa League representatives played as equal against an opponent with much more history in European competitions to claim another priceless point and keep alive their knockout stage qualification hopes.  Skenderbeu captain, 40-year-old goalkeeper Orges Shehi, was again decisive for the Snow Wolves as he made some perfect late saves that could have otherwise punished Albania’s most successful club of the past decade.

With three other games to go, Skenderbeu who currently rank bottom in Group B of the Europa League group stage can still hope for a top two finish as they are currently level on points with Partizan Belgrade and trail second-placed Swiss Young Boys by only one point.

Ukrainian Dynamo Kyiv who were held to a 2-2 home draw by Young Boys on Thursday night are the group favorites for a direct qualification to the knockout stage with a comfortable four-point lead over the Swiss side.

No Serbian fans were allowed to support Partizani Belgrade for the first-leg encounter in Albania as both clubs agreed to a request by European football’s governing body, UEFA, to avoid possible crowd incidents which in this specific encounter could also be triggered by a nationalist background. The same away fan ban will also apply for the next group stage Skenderbeu will play in Belgrade on November 2.

A late 2014 incident in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier when a drone with nationalist Albanian symbols was flown at the Belgrade stadium triggered violence and led to the game’s suspension.

The drone’s alleged mastermind, Albanian fan Ismail Ballist Morina has been detained in Croatia on behalf of Serbian authorities and Croatia’s Supreme Court has already ruled in favour of his extradition, but it will be the Croatian justice minister and asylum application procedures that will decide his fate. Italy-based 35-year-old Ballist Morina, dubbed as a hero by Red & Black ‘ultra’ fans fears he will not be handed a fair trial in Serbia and has asked for protection.

Partizan Belgrade coach Miroslav Djukic said he was pleased with the result and the hospitality they found in Albania.

"There was no problem, on the pitch it was a very tough match and I have the best impressions. We are happy for the hospitality and we would like to show the same hospitality in Belgrade but with a different result," said the Serbia coach.

“The group stage teams are more or less equal and the upcoming fixture will be decisive for next stage,” he told Albanian reporters.

Albanian coach Ilir Daja said he was pleased with the draw against a tough opponent and considering the fact that the team was forced to make a compulsory replacement of a key player such as Croatian center back Marko Radas who has been playing with Skenderbeu for the last six seasons.

"It was a match which in addition to the direct fight on the pitch, there was also emotional tension and the players didn't have the required calmness," said Daja.

"We played with dignity against a tough opponent. We did well on everything except for not scoring and not claiming the first victory," he added.

Skenderbeu progressed to the 2017 UEFA Europa League group stage as they beat Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb in the qualifying campaign play-offs. The ‘Snow Wolves’ earlier beat Czech Republic’s Mladá Boleslav, Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty and modest Andorran side Sant Julia in the first three Europa League qualifying rounds.

Skenderbeu return to European competition after a one-year ban imposed by European football governing body, UEFA, on match-fixing allegations in the 2015-2016 Champions and Europa League campaigns, making history as the only Albanian club to have made it in the final stage of European competitions.

The Korça-based club named after Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg have also made a good start in the Albanian Superliga and are favorites to win this year’s title.

 
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Oct. 16 – Juventus’s Argentinian forward Paulo Dybala, regarded as the most decent Lionel Messi successor, has missed two penalty kicks in the past two weeks in Italy's Serie A and it was Albanian goalkeepers in both cases who saved them.

Albanian international goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha turned a hero for Lazio last weekend as he saved an injury time Dybala penalty kick to earn Lazio a priceless 2-1 away win against Juventus and keep their Serie A title hopes alive.

Earlier on October 1, it was Atalanta’s Albanian goalkeepers Etrit Berisha, the regular starter for the Albanian national side, who denied Dybala a winner as Atalanta came from behind to draw 2-2 against Juventus.

The saves made by Albanian goalkeepers have also attracted attention of Juventus coach Massimiliano Allegri, one of Italy's most successful Italian managers, who has handed Dybala an apparent ban to take any further penalty kicks against Albanian keepers.

Asked if the Juventus star will be allowed to take new penalty kicks, Allegri half-jokingly said "no, if the goalkeeper is Albanian, yes, if he is from another national side."

"Football is strange, we hit the bar and the post, we are not doing well for the moment and it's now time to reorganize ourselves," Allegri said after the season's first defeat against Lazio.

Commenting on his save, the Lazio goalkeeper Strakosha said he had studied the Dybala penalty kicks and managed to save it also with God’s help.

"I was so upset when Juventus were awarded a penalty kick as it was the 94th minute and they didn't deserve the draw," he added.

Strakosha who has been a regular starter with Lazio since making his debut in Sept. 2016 is now regarded as one Lazio's strengths.  The 22-year-old keeper has only conceded 10 goals in the first eight Serie A, being one of the best so far.

With eight games played, Lazio rank fourth in Serie A, level on points with third placed Juventus who hold an advantage thanks to their better goal difference, and trail leaders Napoli by 5 points.

Thomas Strakosha is now the only Albanian player with Lazio after the departure of national side’s goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and former Albanian captain Lorik Cana. Former Albanian international Igli Tare has been serving as Lazio’s sporting director since he quit professional football with Lazio in 2008.

Although having made only four appearances with the national side, Strakosha is on track to follow in his father's footsteps, former Albanian international Foto Strakosha who was the national side's keeper for 15 years until 2005.

Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha is also having a good personal season with Atalanta although the club looks far away from last season's performance when they finished fourth to earn a Europa League spot. He also received special praise for saving Paulo Dybala’s penalty kick on Oct. 1 to give Atalanta a precious point in this season’s poor start.

The Kosovo-born goalkeeper who grew up as professional player in Sweden was decisive for Atalanta last season as he moved on loan from Lazio and has been a regular starter for Albania in the past five years.

Asked about his save, Berisha said "it was so great as Dybala had missed no penalty kick in Serie A, but the most important thing for us was to get a point from a team that has been dominating Italian football for years," added Berisha.

Albanian international fullback Elseid Hysaj is also having a perfect season start with Napoli who lead the Serie A on full points from the first eight matches. The 23-year-old defender has been a regular starter with Napoli since joining in 2015 and 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.

He is the best-paid Albanian player earning about €1 million a season and Napoli have put a €50 million release clause on his new 5-year contract.

Three other Albanian internationals play in Italy's Serie A with Ledian Memushaj and Berat Djimsiti for newly promoted Serie A club Benevento and center back Arlind Ajeti for Crotone.

The final World Cup qualifier against Italy which Albania narrowly lost 1-0 few days ago was considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighboring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania. A considerable number of the Albanian internationals grew up as professional players in Italy.
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                    [post_content] => league 2TIRANA, Oct. 12 - Albania has been lined up in League C of the maiden UEFA Nations League, a tournament that largely replaces friendlies but which will also play a major part in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign by deciding the final four places via play-offs.

In a four-league competition based on coefficient rankings after the group stages of the European qualifiers for the Russia 2018 World Cup, the European football's governing body has placed Albania in League C mostly featuring South-East Europe national sides with Serbia and Greece as the toughest sides. Serbia managed to directly qualify for the 2018 World Cup while Greece earned a play-off opportunity.

Previous games between Albania and Serbia have proved problematic, triggering ethnic tensions.

A late 2014 incident in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier when a drone with nationalist Albanian symbols was flown at the Belgrade stadium triggered violence and led to the game’s suspension.

The drone’s alleged mastermind, Albanian fan Ismail Ballist Morina has been detained in Croatia on behalf of Serbian authorities and Croatia’s Supreme Court has already ruled in favour of his extradition, but it will be the Croatian justice minister and asylum application procedures that will decide his fate. Italy-based 35-year-old Ballist Morina, dubbed as a hero by Red & Black ‘ultra’ fans fears he will not be handed a fair trial in Serbia and has asked for protection.

Rivalry with Greece is also tough even in football considering some unsettled disputes between the two countries, but previous games with the neighbouring country, host to about half a million Albanian migrants, have gone smooth. In their last encounters as part of the 2006 World Cup qualification campaign, Albania beat then-reigning surprise European champions Greece 2-1 and lost 2-0 in the away qualifier.

The 15 League C contestants will be split into one group of three and three groups of four. The four group winners are promoted to League B, with the four sides that finish bottom relegated to League D for the 2020 edition.

The UEFA Nations League will provide teams with another chance to qualify for the UEFA EURO final tournament, with four sides qualifying through play-off matches which take place in March 2020.

The top four-ranked League C teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter play-offs in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.

Chances for Albania and other contenders to make it EURO 2020 in case of failing to qualify directly as the top two group stage teams in the qualification campaign, are only through the National League tournament as the third-placed team is no longer provided a play-off opportunity.

Chances increase as if a UEFA Nations League group winner has already qualified via the European Qualifiers, then their spot will go to the next best-ranked team in their league.

Albania claimed a first-ever direct qualification in the EURO 2016 qualification campaign, finishing second in a tough group stage that also featured reigning European champions Portugal as well as Denmark and Serbia.

In the 2018 World Cup qualification campaign, Albanian finished third in a group stage it could not do much against former world champions Spain and Italy.

Albania's coach Christian Pannuci has been set a Euro 2020 qualification task as he succeeded Italian compatriot Gianni De Biasi in mid-2017 and led the national side in its last four World Cup qualifiers.

Under his lead, Albania easily beat modest Liechtenstein, got a hard-earned draw against Macedonia, but was thrashed 3-0 by group leaders Spain and narrowly lost 1-0 in the final home qualifier with Italy to finish third in the Group G of the qualifiers.

Featuring 55 European national sides divided into four leagues, the UEFA Nations League group games will be held over six matchdays, during the 'double-headers' in September, October and November 2018.

The last four EURO places will be won through the European Qualifiers play-offs, which will take place in March 2020 and which will be contested by the 16 UEFA Nations League group winners.

The League Phase Draw for the UEFA Nations League will take place in Switzerland on 24 January 2018.

Arguing that friendly internationals are not providing adequate sporting competition, European football’s governing body says its maiden Nations League creates more meaningful and competitive matches for teams and a dedicated calendar and structure for national team football.

“For middle-ranking and smaller nations, the UEFA Nations League will offer an extra way to qualify for UEFA EURO final tournaments while lower-tier countries – the bottom 16 in the rankings – are now guaranteed one of the 24 qualifying slots for UEFA EURO,” UEFA says.

While the UEFA Nations League will replace most friendly internationals, there will still be space in the calendar for friendlies, especially for top teams who may want to face opposition from outside Europe as they will be in groups of three teams.

However, many fans, players and pundits have expressed some confusion over the idea, particularly as it will run alongside qualifying for the 2020 European Championship.

 

UEFA Nations League sections

League A: Germany, Portugal, Belgium, Spain, France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Poland, Iceland, Croatia, Netherlands

League B: Austria, Wales, Russia, Slovakia, Sweden, Ukraine, Republic of Ireland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Czech Republic, Turkey

League C: Hungary, Romania, Scotland, Slovenia, Greece, Serbia, Albania, Norway, Montenegro, Israel, Bulgaria, Finland, Cyprus, Estonia, Lithuania

League D: Azerbaijan, FYR Macedonia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Latvia, Faroe Islands, Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Liechtenstein, Malta, Andorra, Kosovo, San Marino, Gibraltar
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                    [post_content] => [caption id="attachment_134088" align="alignright" width="300"]Fans unveil a giant Cana shirt reading "Cana forever": Photo: Albanian Football Association Fans unveil a giant Cana shirt reading "Cana forever": Photo: Albanian Football Association[/caption]

TIRANA, Oct. 10 - Albania concluded their World Cup qualifying campaign with a narrow 1-0 loss against four-time world champions Italy, finishing third in a tough group stage dominated by Spain who automatically qualified for Russia 2018.

The national side produced a good performance and were almost equal to the Italians who had already secured a play-off but desperately needed a win to be seeded in the pot with four highest-ranked teams for the Russia 2018 play-off draw on Oct. 17 when they learn their opponents.

The Italians came to Albania after a disappointing 1-1 home draw against Macedonia and finished their qualifying campaign trailing group leaders Spain by 5 points, drawing criticism by Italian media.

Held under tight security measures over fears of possible terrorist incidents, the match at Shkopdra’s “Loro Borici” stadium, Italy’s first in Albania, was decided by a second half winner by Inter midfielder Antonio Candreva.

Albania's legendary captain, the national side's most capped player with 93 games, bid adieu to a sellout crowd of 16,000 in a farewell ceremony accompanied by his Italian wife and two-year-old son. The much travelled defender who played in France, Italy, England and Turkey, quit the national side and club football at 33 in mid-2016 after leading the Red & Blacks to a historic first ever appearance in a major competition such as France 2016.

The Four world cups Italy have claimed were also displayed at the local “Migjeni” theatre in Shkodra, northern Albania, in an exhibition paying tribute to the popularity of the Italian national side in Albania.

Albania collected 13 points in 10 matches in the World Cup qualifying campaign and much of the success for finishing third is dedicated to Gianni De Biasi, Christian Pannuci’s predecessor who led Albania to first-ever appearance to a major competition such as Euro 2016. De Biasi, who now coaches Deportivo Alavés at Spain’s top league, quit the national side in mid-2016 after avenging Israel with 3-0 away win.

Having led Albania in the last four qualifiers, Pannuci, a 44-year-old former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Roma defender with not much coaching experience, only managed to beat modest Liechtenstein and get a hard-earned draw away to Macedonia in the first two games.

In the away qualifier with Spain, Albania was thrashed 3-0 in the first 27 minutes and could do little against Real Madrid and Barcelona stars despite hitting the bar twice with two headers. Spain, who remained unbeaten in their qualifying campaign, also beat second-placed Italy 3-0 last September to extend their lead.

The next challenge for Albania and coach Pannuci will be to make a good appearance in UEFA’s maiden Nations League and try to repeat history with another qualification for the Euro 2020.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Oct. 9 – Albania will conclude their World Cup qualifying campaign on Monday night in a tough home qualifier against neighboring Italy, one of Europe’s toughest sides, under tight security measures over fears of possible terror incidents.

Albanian police authorities say they have tightened security ahead of the qualifier with what is apparently the most popular national side in Albania “to identify individuals and extremist groups with clear criminal and terrorist intentions that could severely infringe public order before, during and after the sports event."

Albania will play Italy tonight at the “Loro Boriçi” stadium in the northern Albanian city of Shkodra in a qualifier that does not decide much as four-times World Champions Italy have already secured their play-off opportunity as the second best group stage national side while Albania remain hopeful to preserve their third place which also depends on group leaders Spain making no concessions in their final qualifier away to Israel.

The Albanian state police say they have placed anti-terror experts at the border-crossing points with Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and at Durres Port to stop individuals with radical or extremist tendencies and will also be monitoring social networks to identify calls inciting extremism.

The "Illyrian Elite" group which in last March's first leg qualifier with Italy in Palermo threw flares on the pitch, leading to the game's suspension for several minutes and costing Albania a CHF 100,000 (€92,000) fine by FIFA, will not be allowed to attend the match.

Meanwhile, the main “Red & Black” fan group, which has been boycotting the national side’s home matches since the Nov. 2016 home qualifier with Israel over what they call “state terror against fans” will not be attending the final World Cup qualifier when a farewell ceremony will also be held in honor of legendary Albania captain Lorik Cana. Albania’s most capped player with 93 games, Cana quit the national side and club football at 33 in mid-2016 after leading the Red & Blacks to a historic first ever appearance in a major competition such as France 2016.

The run-up to the Nov. 2016 Albania-Israel World Cup qualifier led to several arrests in Albania and Kosovo over an alleged planned terrorist attack after local authorities were tipped off by Israeli intelligence services.

Only about 1,200 Italy fans, 700 of whom Italians residing in Albania, will be attending the match at the 16,000-seat Loro Boriçi stadium.

Albania take on Italy after being thrashed 3-0 in the away qualifier with Spain last weekend while Italy were held to 1-1 draw by Macedonia. Albania were beaten 2-0 in the first-leg away qualifier in Palermo under former coach Gianni De Biasi and it's now Christian Pannuci's turn to show what he can do against a big national side, having only beaten Lichtenstein and drawn against Macedonia since taking over in mid-2017.

Not in their best days, Italy will be fighting for a victory to be seeded in the pot with the four highest-ranked teams for the Russia 2018 play-off draw of Europe's eight best runners-up.

The Italy encounter is considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighboring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania. Some key Albanian players, including Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj and Lazio and Atalanta goalkeepers Thomas Stratosha and Etrit Berisha play in Italy's Serie A while several others were born or grew up as professional players in Italy.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Oct. 2 – Coach Christian Pannuci has called up some reinforcements for Albania’s last two World Cup qualifiers against European superpowers Spain and Italy in a bid to surprise the group leaders and preserve the current third spot.

The Italian coach has made up with Basel midfielder Taulant Xhaka who returns to the national side after a six-month disciplinary suspension and also called up Turkish top league striker Sokol Cikalleshi after leaving him out for last September’s Liechtenstein and Macedonia qualifiers.

Greek and Swiss top league midfielders Ergys Kaçe and Ermir Lenjani have also received a call to help in Albania's closing qualifiers as three regular starters will be missing the first qualifier against Spain on yellow card suspension.

The surprise player receiving his debut call is Emanuele Ndoj, a much promising Italy-born and raised 20-year-old central midfielder playing Brescia in Italy’s Serie B. He joins Spain-born defender of Albanian origin Ivan Balliu, Albania-born, Italy-raised left back Hysen Memolla who plays for Croatia’s Hajduk Split and Macedonia-born Valon Ahmedi, an attacking midfielder for Maribor, Slovenia’s most successful club, who are yet to make their debut under Pannuci’s lead.

Almost all 26-players Pannuci has called up for the closing qualifiers play abroad except for the third-choice goalkeeper, raising concerns over neglect to the Albanian Superliga and some Skenderbeu stars who made it twice to the Europa League group stage in the past three years.

“Spain and Italy are both very important fixtures for Albania's image. They are both tougher than us, but football has shown you can succeed even against the best,” Pannuci told a press conference as the national side prepares for the first away qualifier against group leaders Spain on Friday, October 6.

“I want 11 lions on the pitch. We will try hard to get a positive result. We respect our opponents, but I don't like hearing our opponents are tougher without facing each other yet,” said Pannuci, who also served for a short spell in 2012 as assistant to Fabio Capello, one of the greatest Italian coaches, when he was leading the Russian national side.

“Of course I am thrilled both about Italy and Spain. It is clear Italy is more emotional for Albanians, but it does not make a difference for me, I am Italian, but also played in Madrid and am attached to Spain,” he added.

The 44-year-old former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Roma defender with not much coaching experience will have his third and fourth game in Albania’s lead as he tries to follow in Gianni De Biasi’s footsteps, Albania’s most successful coach who resigned in mid-2017 after managing to take Albania to a first-ever appearance in a major tournament such as Euro 2016.

The final qualifying campaign fixture on October 9 will be special as Albania plays four-times World Champions Italy, a much supported national side in Albania and whose Serie A top league, where about a dozen of Albanians play, is one of Albanian fans’ favorites.

The final qualifiers are also a personal challenge for Pannuci to show what he can do better than his predecessor De Biasi who lost both first leg qualifiers against Spain and Italy 2-0 in lackluster performances, marred by defensive blunders.

In the first two games under Pannuci last September, Albania easily beat modest Liechtenstein 2-0 but claimed a hard-earned 1-1 draw in the away qualifier with neighbouring Macedonia.

With two other games to go, Albania have collected 13 points in 8 qualifiers and comfortably rank third in Group G of the World Cup qualifiers, with a four-point lead over fourth-placed Israel, but trailing Italy by six points which makes hopes for a second place and a playoff opportunity an almost mission impossible.

The next challenge for Albania will be to make a good appearance in UEFA’s maiden Nations League and try to repeat history with another qualification for the Euro 2020.
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                    [post_content] => TIRANA, Sept. 29 - Albania's Skenderbeu claimed their first Europa League point as they were held to 1-1 draw by Switzerland’s Young Boys in their second group stage game to keep their knockout stage qualification hopes alive.

In their first home encounter of the campaign, Gambian striker Ali Sowe gave Skenderbeu the lead in the 65th minute, but Albania’s sole Europa League representatives failed to resist pressure conceding an equalizer 7 minutes later.

In a balanced encounter where scoring opportunities and ball possession were almost equal, Skenderbeu showed maturity against a club with much more experience in European competitions.

With four other games to go, the Albanian “Snow Wolves” who are only making their second appearance at the UEFA Europa League, have collected only 1 point in their first two fixtures, ranking fourth in Group B, level on points with Partizan Belgrade and trailing Swiss Young Boys by 1 point.

Group favorites Ukraine's Dynamo Kyiv who came from behind to beat Skenderbeu 3-1 in their opening game and also beat Partizan Belgrade 3-2 seem unrivalled in the top finish, but the race for the second place and a chance to make it to the knockout stage remains open for all three other contenders.

Coach Ilir Daja said Skenderbeu had already met expectations with its second Europa League appearance and will keep fighting for a second place in the group stage although the club’s priority is the Albanian Superliga which they have dominated in the past decade claiming five straight titles and having one lifted on match-fixing allegations.

Skenderbeu’s next Europa League will be at home to Partizan Belgrade on Oct. 19 in a tough encounter that has already sparked interest following the late 2014 incident in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier when a drone with a nationalist Albanian symbols at the Belgrade stadium triggered violence and led to the game's suspension.

The drone's alleged mastermind, Albanian fan Ismail Ballist Morina has been detained in Croatia on behalf of Serbian authorities and Croatia's Supreme Court has already ruled in favour of his extradition, but it will be the Croatian justice minister and asylum application procedures that will decide his fate. Italy-based 35-year-old Ballist Morina, dubbed as a hero by Red & Black ‘ultra’ fans fears he will not be handed a fair trial in Serbia and has asked for protection.

Skenderbeu progressed to the 2017 UEFA Europa League group stage as they beat Croatia's Dinamo Zagreb in the qualifying campaign play-offs. The ‘Snow Wolves’ earlier beat Czech Republic’s Mladá Boleslav, Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty and modest Andorran side Sant Julia in the first three Europa League qualifying rounds.

Skenderbeu return to European competition after a one-year ban imposed by European football governing body, UEFA, on match-fixing allegations in the 2015-2016 Champions and Europa League campaigns, making history as the only Albanian club to have made it in the final stage of European competitions.

The Korça-based club named after Albania’s national hero Skanderbeg have also made a good start in the Albanian Superliga and are favorites to win this year’s title.

Having played three games, Skenderbeu lead the Albanian Superliga on goal difference over reigning first-time champions Kukes in a season start with not much rivalry as Partizani led by former Juventus player Mark Iuliano and transfer guru Luciano Moggi as advisor have disappointed collecting only 1 point in first three games.

Meanwhile, Albania’s most successful top flight club Tirana is missing in this season’s Superliga following their surprise first-ever relegation last season after about a century in the top Albanian league.
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                    [post_content] => By Ervin Lisaku

[caption id="attachment_133916" align="alignright" width="300"]Group G Group G standings (FIFA)[/caption]

TIRANA, Sept. 27 - Albania will conclude their World Cup qualifying campaign with two tough qualifiers against Spain and Italy, two of Europe's toughest national sides, in a bid to preserve their third place in Group G which earns neither direct qualification, nor a playoff opportunity, but serves the Red & Blacks to improve their seeding ahead of UEFA's maiden Nations League and the Euro 2020 draws.

Albania will first travel to Spain on October 6 before hosting Italy three days later in their concluding World Cup qualifying fixture, in an almost mission impossible against two former world champions who are unrivalled in the top two finish.

The national side lost both first leg qualifiers against Spain and Italy 2-0 in lackluster performances, but could have done better had they avoided defensive blunders that have haunted Albania during these qualifiers.

In the away qualifier against Spain, Hamburger defender Mergim Mavraj, Sion midfielder Burim Kukeli and Grozny’s right winger Odise Roshi, three regular starters for the Albanian national side, will be missing on yellow card suspension, making it more difficult for Albania to hope for a positive result against the group leaders who remain unbeaten in their eight matches and hold a comfortable 3-point lead over second placed Italy.

The final qualifying campaign fixture on October 9 will be special as Albania plays four-times World Champions Italy, a much supported national side in Albania and whose Serie A top league, where about a dozen of Albanians play, is one of Albanian fans’ favorites.

The match kick-off with Italy at the “Loro Boriçi” stadium in the northern city of Shkodra will be preceded with a farewell ceremony to former legendary captain Lorik Cana, the football association has announced. Albania’s most capped player with 93 games, Cana quit the national side and club football at 33 in mid-2016 after leading the Red & Blacks to a historic first ever appearance in a major competition such as France 2016.

The much-travelled Albanian defender spent four of his best years with Italy's Lazio from 2011 to 2015 before joining France’s Ligue 1 club Nantes. Born in Kosovo, Cana began his professional career in France with Paris Saint Germain and also played for Marseille, Sunderland and Galatasaray before moving to Lazio in 2011.

Albania’s new Italian coach Christian Pannuci has described the final qualifiers with Spain and Italy as very tough, but said “Albania will do their best and try to make history.”

The 44-year-old former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Roma defender with not much coaching experience will have his third and fourth game in Albania’s lead as he tries to follow in Gianni De Biasi’s footsteps, Albania’s most successful coach who resigned in mid-2017 following a stunning 3-0 away victory to Israel.

The 60-year-old coach who led Albania for five and a half years, including the debut at a major tournament such as Euro 2016, has recently undertaken a new club adventure with Deportivo Alavés in Spain's La Liga.

In the first two games under Pannuci last September, Albania easily beat modest Liechtenstein 2-0 but claimed a hard-earned 1-1 draw in the away qualifier with neighbouring Macedonia.

With two other games to go, Albania have collected 13 points in 8 qualifiers and comfortably rank third in Group G of the World Cup qualifiers, with a four-point lead over fourth-placed Israel, but trailing Italy by six points which makes hopes for a second place and a playoff opportunity an almost mission impossible.

The next challenge for Albania will be to make a good appearance in UEFA’s maiden Nations League and try to repeat history with another qualification for the Euro 2020.
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                    [post_date] => 2017-09-22 12:06:32
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                    [post_content] => Partizani, trained by Mark Iuliano, remains the only team in the Superior League not to score a goal in the first two matches, as it was defeated 2-0 at home from Laç and tied with Kukës (0-0). One has to dig deep in the team’s archives to find a similar start of the season. It only happened 18 years ago that Partizan started off this way, receiving two points in the first two matches. The referred year is season 1999-2000, when for the first time the team downgraded from the Superior League. Even that starting of the season was better, as the team at least scored a goal, whereas the present team is yet to score. During that season, Partizan achieved its first victory on the third week, when they defeated Apolonia 3-1, with one goal scored by Alban Rexha and one by Shtrepi. It is yet to be seen what Partizan of Mark Iuliano will achieve on its third week. If the reds don’t win against Skenderbeu, Partizan’s worst start in the club’s history at the Superior League will be confirmed. Despite the downpours in Tirana the past days, the team has continued preparing for the meeting with Skenderbeu next Saturday. What has been noticed in the training areas of the Kamzë facility is trainer’s Mark Iuliano absence, who is sourced to be down with the common flu.

The team is down with the flu
Central midfielder Gezim Krasniqi has a similar problem with trainer Mark Iuliano, as he was present in the field but did not train with the rest of the team. At the absence of Iuliano, the team has been training with substitute trainer Klevis Dalipi and the other part of the staff. The footballers who played in the match against Kukës have been doing light training, with only few athletic exercises. Meanwhile, the rest of the team has gone through a ‘control’ game among them. More information on the formation of players that will appear on the field during the match in Korçë will be provided as soon as trainer Iuliano returns to practice. The latter said he was satisfied with his team’s performance on the field, despite the fact they could not be victorious, which means there will not be many changes in the formation that will play against Kukës.
                    [post_title] => One point in two matches, Partizani like 18 years ago
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            [post_content] => TIRANA, Nov. 2 - Skenderbeu's hopes of advancing to the knockout stage of the UEFA Europa League received a major setback on Thursday night as Albania's most successful club of the past decade were beaten 2-0 by Serbia’s Partizan Belgrade in an away encounter held under tight security measures.

The loss in Belgrade leaves Skenderbeu bottom in Group B with 2 points, trailing third-placed Swiss Young Boys by 1 point and Partizan Belgrade by 3 points. Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv beat Young Boys 1-0 in an away victory that mathematically secured their knockout stage qualification with a five-point lead over now second-placed Partizan Belgrade.

With two other games to go, qualification hopes for Skenderbeu who face difficult encounters against the Ukrainians and the Swiss in their final group stage matches, are quite slim and only two victories could see the Albanian club progress to the next round as the second best Group B team.

Having held Partizan Belgrade to a goalless draw at home in the first leg tie, Skenderbeu paid dear for their defensive mistakes, especially in the second goal when two of its best player, captain and goalkeeper Orges Shehi and midfielder Sabien Lilaj provided an assist for the Partizani striker following a misunderstanding.

The same to the Albania encounter, away fans were banned to attend the game on security grounds in UEFA-proposed measured following a drone incident at the Belgrade stadium in late 2014 in a Serbia-Albania Euro 2016 qualifier, leading to the game’s suspension.

The match was played under tight security with heavy police presence cited as a concern with a psychological effect on Skenderbeu’s performance.

"There was no problem during the match, but when you see so much police presence, that is not the appropriate environment for a football match," said Skenderbeu’s coach Ilir Daja.

Local media reported there were also racist chants by Partizani supporters, which could trigger possible punishment by European football’s governing body, UEFA.

In last month’s first-leg encounter, Skenderbeu were fined €60,000 by UEFA over illicit chants, fireworks and racist behaviour and also ordered to play their next Europa League home game behind closed doors.

Skenderbeu will play at home against Dynamo Kyiv on Nov. 23 before concluding their group stage away to Switzerland's Young Boys on December 7.

Skenderbeu return to European competition after a one-year ban imposed by European football governing body, UEFA, on match-fixing allegations in the 2015-2016 Champions and Europa League campaigns, making history as the only Albanian club to have made it in the final stage of European competitions.
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