Albania’s Skenderbeu claim historic Europa League group stage qualification

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 25, 2017 08:40

By Ervin Lisaku

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Skenderbeu players celebrate after making it to the Europa League group stage for a second time. Photo: KF Skenderbeu

TIRANA, Aug. 25 – Albania’s Skenderbeu claimed a historic UEFA Europa League group stage qualification on Thursday night as they held Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb to a goalless draw in a play-off, making it thanks to an away goal.

Albania’s most successful club of the past decade suffered in the second half as they were down to 10 men for almost 20 minutes after African striker Nimaga was sent off with a second yellow card.

However, the Albanian club resisted pressure, avenging the Croatians with much more experience in European competition, to make it to the group stage of the Europa League for a second time, but this time directly after going through four qualifying stages.

Back in 2015, Skenderbeu automatically made it to the Europa League group stage after losing to Dinamo Zagreb 6-2 on aggregate in the Champions League play-off.

Skenderbeu’s qualification came thanks to a priceless away goal by Kosovo midfielder Liridon Latifi in the first leg encounter when Skenderbeu were denied a win by an injury time equalizer.

The 23-year old Kosovo playmaker was hailed as a hero by Skenderbeu players and fans as he bid goodbye to Skenderbeu after almost three years to move to Hungarian top league side Puskas Academy.

Skenderbeu coach Ilir Daja dedicated the victory to all players, especially captain goalkeeper Orges Shehi, a 40-year veteran who has been decisive with his saves and even scored in a penalty shootout during the qualifying campaign.

“We played a very good first half against very tough opponents who are one of the Balkans’ best teams. We did our best in the four qualifying stages and we really faced three very strong teams,” Daja told reporters as celebrations kicked off in the packed Elbasan Arena stadium.

Dinamo Zagreb coach Mario Cvitanović also congratulated Skenderbeu as a courageous and tough team who deserved to qualify.

Skenderbeu will now learn its three group stage opponents on Friday afternoon after a draw is made in Monaco.

The Albanians could face big names such as AC Milan, Arsenal or Lyon in their six group stage matches scheduled from September to December.

Back in 2015, Skenderbeu finished bottom in Group H, but made history as the first Albanian club to make it to the group stage of a major European competition. The Albania champions named after national hero Skanderbeg managed to get only a home win against Portugal’s Sporting CP, but lost all fixtures against Russia’s Lokomotiv Moscow and Turkey’s Besiktas.

Skenderbeu progressed to the 2017 UEFA Europa League play-offs as they eliminated Czech Republic’s Mladá Boleslav in a penalty shootout. The ‘Snow Wolves’ earlier beat Kazakhstan’s Kairat Almaty and modest Andorran side Sant Julia in the first and second 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.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 25, 2017 08:40