Panucci vows ‘real’ Albania for opening Nations League fixtures

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 3, 2018 12:18

Panucci vows ‘real’ Albania for opening Nations League fixtures

Story Highlights

  • “The real European qualifiers story kicks off now. I have thoroughly analyzed it with the [football association] president. I don't want to hide the delicate moments I have been through. I am sorry about those who don't understand it, because we did well against Turkey, Spain and Italy,” says the Italian coach

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TIRANA, Sept. 3 – Coach Christian Panucci considers the three consecutive warm–up losses Albania suffered this year a closed chapter and has vowed a U-turn for the upcoming official encounters against Israel and Scotland for the inaugural Nations League.

“For us, this competition is extremely important. I don't want to look back and waste time with negative energy. We are now all focused on these official games. I no longer feel pressure since we have recovered some players. We have to give a signal. Everything is now over with the experiments,” Panucci has told a news conference as he unveiled the 25 players who have been called up for the opening Nations League games.

The pledge comes as Albania is training for the opening Nations League qualifier against Israel, a game that Albania plays at home on Friday, Sept. 7 at the Elbasan Arena stadium.

The inaugural UEFA Nations League is a tournament that largely replaces friendlies but also plays a major part for the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign by deciding the final four places via play-offs.

“The real European qualifiers story kicks off now. I have thoroughly analyzed it with the [football association] president. I don't want to hide the delicate moments I have been through. I am sorry about those who don't understand it, because we did well against Turkey, Spain and Italy,” says Panucci.

The 45-year-old Italian coach has been under constant fire following three humiliating losses in a row against Norway, Kosovo and Ukraine this year and has failed to convince during his first year at the helm of the national side and prove a decent replacement for his predecessor Gianni De Biasi, the Italian who led Albania to a first-ever major tournament qualification such as the Euro 2016.

A former AC Milan and Real Madrid defender, but with little coaching experience, Panucci has been experimenting with a series of new players since taking over in mid-2017, but many of the new players failed to convince and the Italian is now back relying on some key players previously considered ‘too old’ such as former captain Ansi Agolli, currently 35, and defender Mergim Mevraj who has yet to find a team after leaving relegated Hamburger.

Panucci managed to win with modest Liechtenstein, drew with Macedonia and narrowly lost against Italy in World Cup qualifiers.

His best game in Albania’s lead was last November when the national side surprised Turkey in a friendly with an away 3-2 victory as they played in 10 men for most of the time.

Panucci’s managerial experience started in 2012 when he served as assistant to Fabio Capello, one of the greatest Italian coaches, when he was leading the Russian national side. Panucci also managed Serie B sides Livorno, Ternana before taking over as Albania’s coach.

The Italian has been set a Euro 2020 qualification target in his two-and-a-half year Albania contract, but critics doubt his adventure with Albania could end up as soon as next November when the initial Nations League campaign ends.


Key players make comeback

“This is where our road to the major European target kicks off. We have recovered six decisive players,” says Panucci.

Winger Eros Grezda is among the most important players making a comeback to the national side after recovering from an injury. The 23-year midfielder recently joined Scotland's elite club Rangers on a four-year deal from Croatia's Osijek.

Jahmir Hyka of the San Jose Earthquakes at the U.S. Major League Soccer has also received a call for the upcoming Israel and Scotland Nations League qualifiers. Midfielder Andi Lila who has been playing in Greece for the past seven years is also back on the 25-man list.

Albania take to the Israeli encounter without two of its key players, striker Armando Sadiku who is recovering following knee injury and right winger Odise Roshi who also suffered recent injury at the Russian championship. Both players had a key impact on the 3-0 away victory to Israel with Sadiku scoring a double and Roshi setting up a goal.

“We are a good team if there's everybody of us. We are not Brazil as someone might think. Mavraj has not been playing for a long time and Grezda too. Roshi and Sadiku are injured. Agolli and Lila have fluctuated with their field presence. If we are a complete team, we can do well like we did against Turkey and Spain,” says Panucci.

“I have called up experienced players, avoiding the big pressure on these matches. Players who have been playing little cannot handle both matches. Even our opponents face such issues with players,” adds Panucci.


Different games

“The games with Israel and Scotland are quite different. In Scotland, it will be a fiery match. Scotland puts a lot of pressure and every player needs fire,” says Panucci.

The home encounter at Elbasan Arena stadium is expected to be held under tight security measures following a planned terrorist attack successfully foiled ahead of the Nov. 2016 World Cup qualifier, later held peacefully.

Albania lost the home qualifier 3-0 but avenged the defeat with a surprise 3-0 away victory in the second leg encounter and finished third in Group G, one point ahead of fourth-placed Israel, in a tough qualifying campaign dominated by former world champions Spain and Italy.

Israel take on Albania after appointing Austrian Andreas Herzog in early August after almost a year without a coach and having played only a home friendly against Romania for this year which they lost 1-2. Israel’s best striker, former captain Eran Zahavi, has also returned to the national side after quitting it for about one year over an armband scandal.

Albania travel to Scotland on Sept. 10, three days after playing Israel, to conclude their first-leg Nations League fixtures in Group 1 of League C, the only group 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, but having failed to reach a major finals since the 1998 World Cup.

Scotland initially face World Cup semi-finalists Belgium in a friendly test on 7 September before taking on Albania three days later.

Albania’s second leg Nations League games will be away to Israel on Oct. 14 and at home to Scotland on Nov. 17.

Albania will also play two home friendlies against Wales and Jordan next October and November during the ‘free’ international match days of the Nations League competition.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times September 3, 2018 12:18