Albania calls up reinforcements for final Spain, Italy qualifiers

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times October 2, 2017 17:40

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 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.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times October 2, 2017 17:40