De Biasi calls up Albanian Superliga reinforcements for Italy encounter
- The long-awaited first official Italy encounter is considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016.
TIRANA, March 23 – With some key absences due to booking and injury, coach Gianni De Biasi has called up four players from the Albanian Superliga and a Croatia League midfielder to compensate for some key defensive absences and some strikers that have been left out of the 23-men squad for the key Italy encounter and the Bosnia and Herzegovina friendly in the next few days.
Twenty-four year old defender Albi Alla who has been shining with the Albanian Superliga leaders Kukesi during this season has received his first international call with Albania who take on a decisive qualifier away to Italy on March 20 in their World Cup qualifying bid after a setback following two consecutive losses to Spain and Israel.
Partizani and Skenderbeu goalkeepers Alban Hoxha and Orges Shehi have also been called up for the next two matches to compensate for Etrit Berisha, the Atalanta and national side regular starter, who will be missing the next two matches after being sent off in last November’s Israel qualifier.
Lokomotiva Zagreb’s Eros Grezda and Skenderbeu’s Liridon Latifi, both of whom Kosovo-born midfielders in their early 20s, have received their second call up with the national side.
Albania’s Pisa attackers in Italy’s Serie B Edgar Çani and Rei Manaj have both been left out of the squad although Manaj seems back on track after scoring twice in the past couple of weeks with his new side. Shkelzen Gashi, who scored nine goals last season with his Colorado Rapids at the U.S. Major League and even claimed the league’s ‘Goal of the Year’ award has also been left out again, although Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in same league has been included in the 23-men squad.
Speaking about his four choices from the Albanian Superliga, coach De Biasi said the Albanian Superliga has become much tougher in the past five years since he took over Albania in late 2011.
“The Albanian championship has improved a lot since I have been here. There are some players we are closely watching, but there is not much space as there are many players in stronger leagues. I never get away my attention from the Albanian championship, especially this year when rivalry has increased,” he told reporters.
With ten more games to go, sixth straight consecutive Superliga champions and the 2015 UEFA Europa league Albania debutants Skenderbeu, are facing tough competition season this year as they trail leaders Kukes and Partizani by two points.
The long-awaited first official Italy encounter is considered a ‘local derby’ due to half a million Albanians living in Italy and the popularity the neighbouring country across the Adriatic enjoys in Albania, whose national side led by Italian coach Gianni De Biasi achieved a milestone with the first ever participation in a major competition such as the Euro 2016.
“I am so proud to be part of this nation. I will be so happy if we beat Italy even though I am Italian myself. I have come here to work seriously, doing this job with all my heart and we managed to achieve something extraordinary. I have been feeling Albanian for real,” said De Biasi, considered a hero in Albania and recently honored with an Italian presidential order of merit for promoting football and friendly relations between the two neighbouring countries.
The Italian coach admits it will be tough against the four-time World champions, but is still optimistic Albania can make a top two finish in a tough qualifying group stage that also features 2010 World Champions Spain.
“Playing against Italy is something motivating for everybody of us because we are playing against the four-time World champions. It will be tough for us even because of the fact that their players are in good shape and play and score regularly,” De Biasi told reporters.
Defender Mergim Mavraj who joined Hamburger in the German Bundesliga last January will be a key absence for coach De Biasi and Albania who have been suffering consecutive defensive problems after their Euro 2016 debut and the departure of long-serving captain Lorik Cana from international and club football.
Goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and defender Berat Xhimshiti, both of whom sent off last November in the home qualifier with Israel, which 9-men Albania lost 0-3, will also be key absences for De Biasi although the goalkeeper issue seems already settled with another substitute from Italy’s Serie A. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Strakosha who has been shining as a regular starter with Lazio in the past few weeks seems a perfect substitute for veteran goalkeeper Berisha, who has also been in perfect shape helping his new Atalanta side play one of their best seasons since joining last January on loan from Lazio.
“It is not difficult motivating the team against reputable opponents. For me, it is more difficult arranging a game against an unknown team. I know Italy quite well and it is quite normal we have to do our best to handle a very tough match like this one,” said De Biasi.
Leading Albania for the past five years, De Biasi got a surprise away Euro 2016 qualifying victory with Portugal and stunned Euro 2016 hosts France in a friendly, finishing second in a tough qualifying campaign that also featured Denmark and Serbia.
Commenting on alleged euphoria following the historic first ever participation in a European championship, De Biasi said, “after two losses against Spain and Israel, the euphoria has normally faded away. We now have to be careful to avoid repeating such situations because our strength stands in being a united group and mobilizing better on the pitch.”
The national side earlier beat Macedonia 2-1 and won 2-0 against modest Liechtenstein in the first two qualifiers before the Spain and Israel losses.
Keeping optimism alive in the team, De Biasi, who has often been roumoured of taking over a new national side or club, said a runner-up group finish is still possible.
“De Biasi’s objective is finishing second in the qualifiers as the first spot is quite difficult. I have shown I am a man of word and have even given up important contracts to take this team to the European championship,” he said.
Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj who has been on the watch by several big teams following his impressive games in Serie A and the Champions League in the past two seasons provides some guarantee for De Biasi along with new captain Andi Lila who plays in the Greek top league.
About a dozen Albanian players in Italy’s Serie A and B where Napoli 22-year-old fullback Elseid Hysaj is the most sought-after Albanian international.
The midfield seems tougher with Pescara’s Ledian Memushaj and Basel’s Taulant Xhaka having been regular starters with their Italian and Swiss teams and Jahmir Hyka recently joining the San Jose earthquakes in the U.S. Major League Soccer.
Albania now also has more offensive options with striker Armando Sadiku scoring five goals with his new Lugano team in the top Swiss league following an injury that saw him missing the last two Spain and Israel qualifiers. Having scored seven goals with the national side, including one in the first-ever European championship appearance against Romania at the Euro 2016, Sadiku has been a reference point in Albania’s attack in the past couple of years.
Strikers playing in the Russian, Turkish and Kazakhstan championships such as Bekim Balaj, Sokol Cikalleshi and Azdren Llullaku are the three other attacking alternatives for De Biasi who will likely use Sadiku as a sole starting forward for the Italy encounter.
With six other qualifiers to go, Albania now see themselves fourth with 6 points, trailing Israel by 3 points and group leaders Spain and Italy by four points.
Although mathematically Albania can still remain hopeful for a miracle second place which would award them a play-off opportunity, their qualifying bid looks like a mission impossible now as former World Champions Italy and Spain seem unrivaled in the fight for the group’s first two places.
The four-time World Cup winners who rival Spain for a top finish and direct qualification for Russia 2018 are confident they will make it with Albania although it will not be easy and that is why they have selected Palermo, a southern Italy region where it enjoys its strongest support and has almost always triumphed.
“Albania and Israel are two key matches and that’s why we need the fans’ support. Italy has never disappointed in Palermo. We are preparing for this match with clarity. A new generational change has been initiated and this can take us further than imagined if we develop this group of players. Italy is Italy, when in difficulty it has always shown it ready to unveil what wearing the Azzurri shirt means. A new group of young players is emerging,” Italian coach Gian Piero Ventura has said, pointing out emerging talents such as Belotti and Immobile.
“The result is extremely important against Albania. We know that it will be a crucial fixture, as it could also influence how we perceive the match in Spain. I am calm because after three months I have came across a group of players who are willing to give me everything,” Ventura has told a press conference.
The Italian football association says the Azzurri have a very positive record in Palermo, only one draw and a loss out of 13 games played, having won all the last five consecutive games.
“For Italy this encounter will mean another record to defend, as during World Cup qualifying they are still unbeaten at home. In 50 matches played from 1934 to 2013 on home soil, they have recorded 43 victories and seven draws,” says the Italian association.
The two national sides will play in Palermo, southern Italy, on March 24 in the second encounter after a previous 2014 friendly in Genoa which Italy narrowly won 1-0.
Four days later, Albania will play a home friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 28 at the Elbasan Arena stadium following the end of the first round of the World Cup qualifying campaign before travelling to Israel next June in a new tough qualifier.
The national side will travel to Israel on June 11 and play home to modest Liechtenstein on Sept. 2 before facing Macedonia three days later. The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.