ALBANIA make their first ever appearance at a major tournament on Saturday afternoon. How does Mark O’Haire (@MarkOHaire) reckon they’ll fare against Switzerland?
Albania v Switzerland | Saturday 14.00 | BBC1
Albania were ranked 40th of the 54 European sides when the qualification draw was made but the Black Eagles upset the odds to clinch a place in a major tournament for the very first time.
Huge numbers of fans have flocked to France to support their national heroes and anticipation ahead of their competition opener against Switzerland on Saturday is bordering on fever pitch.
It promises to be an emotional affair with a host of Swiss players on show with roots in the Balkans, including star Xherdan Shaqiri and head coach Vladimir Petkovic. But there’s still an even more intriguing sub-plot to look forward to in Lens…
For the first time in European Championship history, a pair of siblings will come up against each other as Granit (Switzerland) and big brother Taulant (Albania) Xhaka go toe-to-toe on the international stage.
Albania’s players were awarded the country’s highest civilian award – the Honour of National Order – after confirming qualification. But it’s fair to say the Red & Blacks enjoyed a large share of fortune along their route to France.
Italian head-coach Gianni De Biasi saw his side dominated by a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal despite pinching a 1-0 win, whilst the infamous ‘drone incident’ in Serbia handed the Black Eagles a 3-0 victory by default.
Exclude rock-bottom Armenia and Albania scored just two goals in five completed matches against Portugal, Denmark and Serbia and posted a shot ratio figure – their share of the total shots – of just 26% across four fixtures against the Portuguese and Danes.
No Albanian notched more than once in qualification and the powder-puff minnows managed fewer than five attempts on-goal from inside the box from their completed seven qualifiers. It’s fair to say, the lowest ranked nation don’t excel in the offensive third.
But where the Black Eagles do warrant respect is in defence. De Biasi has a built an organised and disciplined outfit since arriving in December 2011 with their 4-5-1 designed to frustrate opponents before pinching goals on the break.
Although the team have won just three of their previous 10 – against Qatar, Luxembourg and Armenia – Albania represent an awkward proposition for Switzerland.
The Swiss are tipped for second in Group A but Die Nati have never progressed from the group-stage of a European Championship. On all three previous excursions Switzerland finished bottom of their group, losing six of their nine pool matches and scoring just five goals.
A repeat this summer would be criminal but since Petkovic arrived in the head coach’s hot-seat promising attacking football, the Swiss have regressed. Supporters are feeling short-changed and the national media have labelled the side ‘faceless’ and ‘shapeless’.
There’s quality galore in full-back and midfield areas but three’s a worrying overreliance on Xherdan Shaqiri to provide offensive ammunition with neither Haris Seferovic or Eren Derdiyok convincing in the central striking role. And at centre-back, Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar are the best of a bad bunch.
Die Nati notched 24 goals during qualification but 21 came against Estonia, Lithuania and San Marino as they failed to score in three of their four fixtures against England or Slovenia. Seven (29%) of their goals arrived from corners, again highlighting worrying glitches in a decent team on paper.
Qualification was far from a comfortable ride and a W5-D1-L0 head-to-head record with Albania will count for little on Saturday, with the highly-motivated underdogs ready to work their socks off in order to earn at least a point.
Switzerland are understandable 10/11 (Coral) favourites but this encounter could easily end in embarrassment. Albania have only lost 13/39 (33%) since October 2011 and never by more than two goals.
The Black Eagles will be far from adventurous – 10 of their past 14 meaningful matches featured fewer than three goals and 7/14 (50%) fellow below the 1.5 goal line – so a repeat scenario seems likely.
The 0-0 half-time correct score looks a safe play at 11/8 (William Hill) – Albania have leaked just six goals before the interval in 17 competitive encounters – whilst it might be best to take a watching brief before getting involved on either side in what could be a fiery fixture.
Albania v Switzerland – 0-0 half-time correct score (11/8 William Hill)