Having never really come close to reaching a major tournament before, Albania caused a minor sensation by qualifying automatically as Group I runners-up under experienced Italian manager Gianni de Biasi.
That hardly told the entire story. The infamous abandoned ‘drone’ game in Serbia gained worldwide attention and eventually Albania were awarded a 3-0 win. A different outcome would have consigned them to the play-offs.
Nonetheless they deserved to qualify, going toe-to-toe with seasoned tournament sides Portugal and Denmark before rubber-stamping their place in France with a big away victory over Armenia amid emotional scenes.
Is there any hope of avoiding an early flight home?
The squad is short on individual quality and a glance at Group A suggests they’d do well to avoid finishing bottom. Deeper analysis provides a measure of hope, however.
For one thing, host nation France played centralised friendlies in Albania’s qualifying group and De Biasi’s side, to their huge credit, drew in Paris and won their home meeting with a fine Ergys Kace free-kick. Their group fixture with Switzerland, meanwhile, will almost be an international derby, with a number of each team’s players eligible to represent the other and the Xhaka brothers lining up on opposite sides. Anything could happen.
That leaves a final meeting with a drab, unconvincing Romania side. The expanded format of Euro 2016 means that three points could be enough to send a team through in third place, and Albania have caused enough surprises in the past two years to suggest that, somewhere along the line, they might be able to get them.
What they’ve learned
Albania generally sat deep in their qualifiers, using a 4-3-3 or 4-5-1 to counter-attack at speed whenever possible. It was a tactic that worked perfectly in their opening match in Portugal, when Bekim Balaj volleyed in a marvellous winner to secure what is probably the finest result in Albanian football’s history.
Their style is best-suited to away games; they also drew in Denmark, won 3-0 in Armenia and were holding the ascendancy when the game in Serbia was abandoned (indeed, they didn’t concede even once on the road). However, the only home game they won was against a 10-man Armenia, and they may struggle if opponents at Euro 2016 decide to hand them the initiative.
De Biasi has created a tight unit and Albania’s main strength lies in their organisation. The defence contains genuine quality in inspirational captain Lorik Cana and the excellent Napoli right-back Berat Djimsiti, while a conservative midfield is bound together by Basel’s Taulant Xhaka, whose better-known brother Granit – now of Arsenal – opted to represent group rivals Switzerland. Taulant has the ability to end up in a bigger league, too, and his presence in Albania’s engine room will be vital.
Albania can also point to a deep-rooted spirit and national pride that acts as a potent motivator. Xhaka’s wrestling of a ‘Greater Albania’ flag from Serbian defender Stefan Mitrovic in Belgrade may have been ill-advised but it showed just how serious Albania’s players are about representing their state.
This is a team that will fight until the bitter end, and it has served them well so far.
Goals are hard to come by: Albania scored only seven in the seven qualifying games they completed, with three of them coming in the final match against Armenia.
They are not blessed with much trickery or verve, and there is no natural poacher in the side. One goal was enough to make six different players (and an own goal) their joint-top scorer in qualifying. No player in De Biasi’s final squad has scored more than three times for the country – ever.
They are strong from dead-ball situations and Ermir Lenjani and Shkelzen Gashi offer good deliveries from out wide, but creativity in open play is hard to come by. There may be question marks, too, over the mobility of their centre-back pairing, which will consist of the veteran Cana and one other – probably Cologne’s towering Mergim Mavraj.
Albania aren't good for flair and it remains to be seen whether Milot Rashica, the 19-year-old Vitesse Arnhem winger who is seen as one of Europe’s brightest young hopes, would have been a sensible selection in order to provide some variety from the bench.
He didn't make the final cut though and, in keeping with their defensive-minded setup, Albania’s star turn may come from further back. Hysaj only joined Napoli a year ago from Empoli but the right-back has been a revelation with the Serie A title chasers and has promptly found himself linked with some of the continent’s giants.
The son of an Albanian labourer who worked in Italy, Hysaj first started playing in Empoli’s academy when he was 15 and his development has been rapid. He is extremely comfortable on the ball and adept going forwards, regularly supplementing attacks and offering the national team – for whom he debuted in 2013 – another dimension from further back.
De Biasi made him Albania’s youngest-ever captain for the friendly against Qatar recently – evidence that he is being groomed to replace Lorik Cana as the team’s leader in the long run, and that he has the capacity to do so.
Gianni de Biasi
De Biasi was contemplating retirement when, out riding his bicycle more than 18 months after being sacked by Udinese, he received a call asking him whether he would be interested in the Albania job. The perennial minnows were seeking an Italian manager and De Biasi, who had also managed the likes of Torino and Brescia during an itinerant career, was sufficiently tempted to take the role despite knowing little about the country.
He has since propelled Albania to unheard-of success and been linked with several bigger jobs – including the one that Italy coach Antonio Conte will vacate in July.