First Macedonia qualifier will be a small Albanian derby

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 5, 2016 12:20

First Macedonia qualifier will be a small Albanian derby

By Ervin Lisaku

TIRANA, Sept. 5 - The first World Cup qualifier Albania will play at home against neighboring Macedonia tonight is also a small Albania derby as the guests  have called up four ethnic Albanian players while Albania features one Macedonia-born player.

Macedonia's coach has called up Besart Ibraimi and Ferhan Ibraimi of the Albanian-owned Shkendija club in the Macedonian league who last month made history by making it to the play-off stage of the Uefa Europa League.

Rijeka left back Leonard Zhuta and Lugano defender Egzian Alioski are the two other players that could be fielded in the qualifier against Albania.

Macedonia's best player, Albanian-Macedonian midfielder Agim Ibrahimi who plays top Kazakhstani club Astana and was announced the Macedonia player of the year in 2014, will miss the match because of injury.

Meanwhile, Naser Aliji has been called up by Albania's coach Gianni De Biasi and could become the first Macedonia-born footballer to play against his home country.

"This is something special, but I think I will forget this part and focus on the game during the match," Aliji has said.

Aliji, a 22-year Macedonia-born defender to ethnic Albanian parents who joined Albania in 2015, currently plays Kaiserslautern in the Bundesliga 2.

Macedonia's coach Igor Angelovski says he has full confidence in the Albanian players.

"I trust the Albanian players in my team 'more than my eyes' and we are all happy they are part of the team," he has said.

Ethnic Albanians officially account for around 25 percent of Macedonia's 2 million population, but the figure is estimated to be higher.

In the Euro 2016, Albania also played a derby with Switzerland with the Swiss 11-men featuring five players of Albanian roots while Albania had three players of Kosovo origin who were born and raised in Switzerland.

Albania's Taulant Xhaka and Switzerland Granit Xhaka became the first brothers to play each other in a European championship.

With Kosovo now a FIFA member and making their debut in the World Cup qualifiers, Albania could in the future also be drawn against its northern neighbor in all-Albanian derby.

Albania will play Macedonia at the newly reconstructed Loro Borià§i stadium in Shkodra on Monday night in the first qualifier at a tough group stage which also features four-time World Cup winners Italy and 2010 winners Spain.

Albania was held to a goalless draw in a home friendly against Morocco on Aug. 31 in a test ahead of the Sept. 5 Macedonia qualifier.

Coach Gianni De Biasi has asked the players not to underestimate Macedonia, who despite their poor performance in the past couple of a years have a positive record against Albania with four wins and three draws in 8 previous head-to-head encounters.

"We have to prepare well for this match because there are no easy things in life. The European championship showed that even small teams can progress if they really want to and focus," said De Biasi.

"We will consider the match against Macedonia as a European final. It would be unforgivable if we underestimate them," he added.

Back in Sept. 2014 at the Euro 2016 opening qualifier, Albania stunned now European champions Portugal with an away 1-0 victory that was key to Red & Blacks'  first ever qualification in a major tournament.

Last June, Albania ended their historic debut in a major football tournament in a dramatic disqualification filled with suspense after the national side was unlucky to make it to the knockout stage of the Euro 2016 as one of the four best third-placed teams.


Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 5, 2016 12:20