World Cup qualifying campaign: Albania take on first official Italy encounter with some key absences
- Due to booking and injury, goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defenders Mergin Mavraj and Berat Gjimshiti will be missing in the long-awaited Italy encounter, considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016
By Ervin Lisaku
TIRANA, March 13 – Albania will take on favourites Italy with some key defensive absences in their first ever official encounter as the Red & Blacks’ World Cup qualifying bid has received a severe blow following two consecutive losses against Spain and Israel in late 2016.
Due to booking and injury, goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defenders Mergin Mavraj and Berat Gjimshiti will be missing in the long-awaited Italy encounter, considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016.
Defender Mergim Mavraj who joined Hamburger in the German Bundesliga last January will be a key absence for coach De Biasi and Albania who have been suffering consecutive defensive problems after their Euro 2016 debut and the departure of long-serving captain Lorik Cana from international and club football.
The 30-year Germany-born Albanian defender of Kosovo roots picked an injury in early March following some impressive performances with his new Bundesliga side, with the ruptured tendon believed to keep him off the pitch for several weeks, including the key qualifier with Italy.
Mavraj, who has been playing with the national side since 2010, moved to Hamburger from Cologne on a two-and-a-half-year deal for a €1.8 million fee in a surprise move as the defender was playing one of his best seasons, having made it to the surprise Bundesliga team after an injury that kept him off the pitch for 20 games last season.
Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defender Berat Xhimshiti, both of whom sent off last November in the home qualifier with Israel, which 9-men Albania lost 0-3, will also be key absences for De Biasi although the goalkeeper issue seems already settled with another substitute from Italy’s Serie A.
Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Strakosha who has been shining as a regular starter with Lazio in the past few weeks seems a perfect substitute for veteran goalkeeper Berisha, who has also been in perfect shape helping his new Atalanta side play one of their best seasons since joining last January on loan from Lazio.
Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj who has been on the watch by several big teams following his impressive games in Serie A and the Champions League in the past two seasons provides some guarantee for De Biasi along with new captain Andi Lila who plays in the Greek top league.
Kaiserslautern defender in the German second division Naser Aliji, the only Macedonia-born Albanian who plays for the national side is another option that De Biasi could also consider along with Rennes’ Ermir Lenjani and Torino’s Arlind Ajeti, both of whom not first choices with their respective teams in the top French and Italian leagues.
Attack gains momentum
The midfield seems tougher with Pescara’s Ledian Memushaj and Basel’s Taulant Xhaka having been regular starters with their Italian and Swiss teams and Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in the U.S. Major League Soccer where he will rival compatriot striker Shkelzen Gashi in the 2017 season.
Albania now also has more offensive options with striker Armando Sadiku scoring five goals in five games with his new Lugano team in the top Swiss league following an injury that saw him missing the last two Spain and Israel qualifiers. Having scored seven goals with the national side, including one in the first-ever European championship appearance against Romania at the Euro 2016, Sadiku has been a reference point in Albania’s attack in the past couple of years.
Strikers playing in the Russian, Turkish and Italian championships such as Bekim Balaj, Sokol Cikalleshi and Rey Manaj are some other options for De Biasi in the Italy encounter where he will likely use a sole forward.
Coach De Biasi says Albania faces a tough challenges and admits his Italian counterpart Giampiero Ventura has higher quality at his disposal.
“We are approaching this match with lots of emotion. Unfortunately, I see Ventura who has a championship producing some high-level players such as Belotti, Immobile and Candreva, just to mention a few in the offensive sector, at a time when I have to deal with a lot of absences,” De Biasi has told Italian media.
“I have problems with the goalkeeper and the two central defenders who been regular starters recently. We face some difficulties, but I am sure we will play our chances,” adds De Biasi, recently honored with an Italian presidential order of merit for promoting football and friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries.
About a dozen Albanian players in Italy’s Serie A and B where Napoli 22-year-old fullback Elseid Hysaj is the most sought-after Albanian international.
An almost mission impossible
After its historic direct qualification for the Euro 2016 and failing to make it as the third-best team at the knockout stage only on goal difference, Albania and coach De Biasi have been facing some tough times in their Russia 2018 World Cup qualifying bid.
Albania’s hopes for a third place and a possible play-off opportunity in the World Cup qualifiers received a severe blow in late 2016 following losses to Spain and Israel in the last two qualifiers. The national side earlier beat Macedonia 2-1 and won 2-0 against modest Liechtenstein in the first two qualifiers.
With six other qualifiers to go, Albania now see themselves fourth with 6 points, trailing Israel by 3 points and group leaders Spain and Italy by four points.
Although mathematically Albania can still remain hopeful for a miracle second place which would award them a play-off opportunity, their qualifying bid looks like a mission impossible now as former World Champions Italy and Spain seem unrivaled in the fight for the group’s first two places.
The Red & Blacks will travel to Italy on March 24 to conclude the first round of group matches for the Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers in a historic fixture that sees the two national sides face each other for the first time in an official competition.
The two national sides will play in Palermo, southern Italy, in the second encounter after a previous 2014 friendly in Genoa which Italy narrowly won 1-0.
Italy currently rank second in Group G of the qualifiers with 10 points on poorer goal difference compared to leaders Spain.
Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 28 at the Elbasan Arena stadium following the end of the first round of the World Cup qualifying campaign before travelling to Israel next June in a new tough qualifier.
The national side will travel to Israel on June 11 and play home to modest Liechtenstein on Sept. 2 before facing Macedonia three days later. The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.