Albania drawn against Scotland, Israel in inaugural UEFA Nations League

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times January 24, 2018 17:37

Albania drawn against Scotland, Israel in inaugural UEFA Nations League

TIRANA, Jan. 24 – Albania have been drawn against Scotland and Israel in the maiden UEFA Nations League, a tournament that largely replaces friendlies but which will also play a major part in the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign by deciding the final four places via play-offs.

Having been previously lined up in League C, Albania was drawn in Group 1, the only one featuring three teams, with the remaining three league groups showcasing four teams.

Scotland, a team which Albania has never faced before is the toughest team in the group, with a lot of experience in World Cup and European tournaments, currently 32nd in the FIFA world rankings, but having failed to reach a major finals since the 1998 World Cup.

Israel, a team which Albania first faced in the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, finished fourth in the group stage last September, trailing third-placed Albania by one point as both sides got 3-0 away victories in their two-legged encounters.  Both Albania and Israel played in a tough qualifying campaign that also featured former world champions Spain and Italy, the latter failing to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in six decades after losing a play-off with Sweden.

Based on coefficient rankings after the group stages of the European qualifiers for the Russia 2018 World Cup, the European football’s governing body has placed Albania in League C mostly featuring South-East Europe national sides with Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria as the toughest sides that Albania could face for the League C winner and a place in the Euro 2020 in case it tops its own Group 1.

Albania’s Italian coach Christian Panucci described the group as balanced, saying he would have preferred a four-team group.

“That is a very balanced group with three tough teams. It’s a group with three teams that allows you to make fewer mistakes. We will rival for the first place,” said Panucci.

A former AC Milan, Real Madrid defender whose Albania job is his first experience as a national side manager, Panucci has been in charge since mid-2017, succeeding compatriot Gianni De Biasi who led Albania to a first ever appearance at a major tournament such as the Euro 2016.

“We have a team that can lead the group and we will play to the end. In order to secure qualification, all you have to do is win the matches. It is not important how many opponents we will be playing with, we will play an offensive and courageous football,” Panucci said.

Featuring 55 European national sides divided into four leagues, the UEFA Nations League group games will be held over six matchdays, during the ‘double-headers’ in September, October and November 2018. Albania, who was drawn in three-team group, will only play four matches against Scotland and Israel.

The UEFA Nations League will provide teams with another chance to qualify for the UEFA EURO final tournament, with four sides from each league qualifying through play-off matches which take place in March 2020.

The top four-ranked League C teams that do not qualify for UEFA EURO 2020 will enter play-offs in March 2020, with one finals place on offer.

Chances for Albania and other contenders to make it EURO 2020 in case of failing to qualify directly as the top two group stage teams in the qualification campaign, are only through the Nations League tournament as the third-placed team is no longer provided a play-off opportunity.

Chances increase as if a UEFA Nations League group winner has already qualified via the European Qualifiers, then their spot will go to the next best-ranked team in their league.

Last November, Albania beat Turkey 3-2 in a surprise away victory as the Red & Blacks played in 10 men for most of the time in the fifth match under coach Panucci who has been set a Euro 2020 qualification task.

The Euro 2020 qualifying campaign is scheduled to begin in March 2019 after ten groups are drawn in December 2018.

Albania will play Norway in a friendly on March 26, but coach Panucci says the national side staff is also negotiating to play two teams who have qualified for the Russia 2018 World Cup.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times January 24, 2018 17:37