Albania calls up new players for ‘derby’ qualifier with Macedonia

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 28, 2017 15:41

Albania calls up new players for ‘derby’ qualifier with Macedonia

balliu

Spain-born Metz defender Ivan Balliu has received his first Albania call-up

TIRANA, Aug. 28 – Italian Christian Pannuci has called up three new players for Albania’s next two World Cup qualifiers in early September, heralding a new era in the national side after the departure of Gianni De Biasi last June.

Albania will play home to modest Liechtenstein on September 2, before travelling to neighboring Macedonia three days later on Sept. 5 in tough qualifier that is also considered a “small Albanian derby” as the Macedonian national side has called up four ethnic Albanian players while one of new entries in the Albanian national side is an ethnic Albanian born in Macedonia.

The three new players Pannuci has called up for the next two qualifiers include 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.

Balliu, recently awarded the Albanian citizenship, is regarded as the most promising entry. He is expected to team up with Napoli fullback Elseid Hysaj, the target of many big clubs this summer, as well as Hamburger defender Mergim Mavraj, strengthening Albania’s suffering defense after the departure of former captain Lorik Cana in mid-2016.

Born to an Albanian father and a Spanish mother, Balliu, 25, grew up as a professional player from the Barcelona youth academy. He was called up for Spain’s U16 and U17 and played Barcelona B and Portugal’s Arouca before joining Metz at the top French league in 2015.

Among those missing Albania’s call up is Basel midfielder Taulant Xhaka, the brother of Swiss international and Arsenal playmaker Granit Xhaka who in the Euro 2016 group stage became the first two brothers to face each other for different national sides in a European competition.

The 26-year-old midfielder has not been called up in the national side since late March after an argument with De Biasi following the Italy qualifier after he was not used as an option. Pannuci reportedly failed to meet him while in Switzerland, leading to his omission.

Greece’s Paok defensive midfielder Albanian Ergys Kaçe and Kosovo-born Ermir Lenjani who has recently moved to Switzerland’s Sion, a new club where he can regularly play after an unsuccessful 2-year spell with Nantes, have also been left out of the 24-men squad.

The list has been reduced to 23 men as striker Cikalleshi was also left out in a last-minute decision by coach Pannuci due to failing to make it in time because of contract talks in Turkey where he has been playing for the past three years.

The two qualifiers are also a test for new coach Pannuci, a 44-year-old former AC Milan, Real Madrid and Roma defender with not much coaching experience, but a strong desire to be a decent successor to his compatriot De Biasi, Albanian most successful coach who managed to take the national side to a first-ever major competition such as Euro 2016 during his five-and-a-half year lead.

With four other games to go, Albania stand almost zero chances to make it to the World Cup in a tough group stage that also features former world champions Italy and Spain who seem unrivalled in the top two finish.

The national side’s goal is to finish third, above rivals Israel and Macedonia, and prepare for the Euro 2020 qualification bid Italian Pannuci has been tasked with in his two-and-a-half-year contract.

“I think we have a good team. I will try to unfold my ideas gradually. We will work in a specific way in an attempt to beat Liechtenstein and Macedonia,” Pannuci told a press conference on Monday.

“Unfortunately, I had to make some decisions. We have Aliji [Kaiserslautern defender] who hasn’t played and Memolla who is playing well. I went to watch Balliu and he is a good athlete, a player who has to improve a lot, but who I think deserved the opportunity to be called up with the national side also because of playing with Metz,” said the Italian.

“Ahmedi has special characteristics. He is left-footed and is skilled at one-on-one,” the coach said about the Maribor attacking midfielder.

Albania’s seems slightly advantaged for the Macedonia qualifier as the national side will initially play home to Liechtenstein which has yet to earn a point while Macedonia will first travel to Israel before taking on Albania.

Albania’s football association had earlier complained Macedonian authorities have selected a small stadium “not meeting international standards.”

UEFA has decided the September 5 qualifier between the two neighboring countries will be played in Mladost Stadium in Strumica town, east of the country close to Macedonia’s border with Bulgaria, and not in capital city Skopje, apparently on security grounds and in to avoid any possible fan conflict considering the sizeable presence of the ethnic Albanian population in Macedonia.

Ethnic Albanians make up about a third of the 2 million population in Macedonia, where ethnic tensions are still present.

 

‘A small Albanian derby’

 The September 5 match is also considered a small Albanian derby due to the sizable presence of ethnic Albanians in Macedonia and both national sides featuring players of Albanian descent.

Macedonia have called up four ethnic Albanian players while newly called up attacking midfielder Valon Ahmedi could become the first Macedonia-born footballer to play against his home country.

The Maribor attacking midfielder replaces Naser Aliji, the Kaiserslautern defender who has not been called up by Pannuci due to few playing opportunities with his Bundesliga 2 club.

“I was born in Ohrid, but I am Albanian and it was a pleasure to choose Albania. It was my desire but especially my parents’ desire that I play for Albania. I was pressured by Macedonia, but I made my choice and I feel happy for this. I felt I was part of the Red & Black national side and if the coach gives me some minutes I will do my best. I chose with my heart,” Ahmedi has told Albanian reporters.

The four ethnic Albanian players in Macedonia’s squad include the captain of Shkendija, the Albanian-owned club in the top Macedonian league who made it to the Europa League play-offs this month but were eliminated by Italian giants AC Milan, Leeds attacking midfielder Ezgjan Alioski who teamed up with Albanian striker Armando Sadiku at Switzerland’s Lugano in the previous season, Macedonia’s Vardar defender Visar Musliu and Spain’s Levante talent Enis Bardhi.

Macedonia has proved tough on home soil in the World Cup qualification campaign with Italy needing an injury time goal to make it 3-2 and Spain narrowly winning 2-1.

Albania also needed a late header by Bekim Balaj to win 2-1 in their opening World Cup qualification campaign against Macedonia in Sept. 2016. The home victory came as the qualifier was initially abandoned at a 1-1 draw due to torrential rain and the game’s remaining 14 minutes at the Shkodra stadium were played the next day. The equalizer was scored by ethnic Albanian Ezgjan Alioski.

Albania’s World Cup campaign received a boost last June after the national side beat Israel 3-0 in an away qualifier to avenger the first-leg home defeat.

The away victory temporary places Albania third with 9 points, leading Israel on goal difference.

The Red & Blacks will conclude their qualification campaign in October 2017 with two tough fixtures against former world champions Spain and Italy.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times August 28, 2017 15:41