It may have been a wilful attempt to keep expectations at rock bottom but pre-tournament discussion in Albania centred for the most part on the nation’s happiness to have reached their first tournament.
“A dream,” said the manager, Gianni De Biasi, on the eve of their opening game, intimating that the real achievement was just getting to France. Now they are two games in, the feeling must be some way different.
Before an eminently winnable group closer against Romania a sense of what might have been has crept in. The Switzerland match, where they fell behind early on but created numerous chances, slipped away on account of the captain Lorik Cana’s entirely avoidable sending off in the first half. Against France they defended brilliantly for 89 minutes before breaking at the death, conceding twice for a largely undeserved 2-0 defeat.
“My team resisted right until the end but we didn’t defend throughout, especially in the first half and at the start of the second,” De Biasi said. “When you don’t take your chances and score goals, you don’t get big results. My team held up pretty well and we’re disappointed to concede a goal a minute from the end.”
Albania still retain a slim chance of progressing to the last 16, though it appears unlikely. To do so would require a heavy win to ensure a positive goal difference. And even then they would have to watch the other groups play to completion, hoping that two third-placed sides finish with weaker records.
While De Biasi says “I believe we can qualify”, Romania’s defence does not look like giving too many chances away. Though they have conceded twice to France and once to Switzerland, Anghel Iordanescu’s team – shipping just two goals in qualifying – are renowned for their rearguard.
Instead Iordanescu’s biggest concern is in attack. Both their goals have come from the penalty spot, put away clinically by the midfielder Bogdan Stancu in each game, though victory by any scoreline is likely to ensure their progress – at least as one of the best four third-placed finishers. If France beat Switzerland and Romania win, then Romania could go through in second depending on goal difference.
No wonder, then, the striker Florin Andone has descended into hyperbole. He has described this match as a matter of “life and death”.
Andone was dropped for the 1-1 draw against Switzerland but is in line for a recall in Lyon after his replacement, Claudiu Keseru, disappointed.
“We must show the mentality of winners against Albania,” he told Romania’s Digi Sport television. “It will be very difficult because Albania are a very good team, they run a lot and are very aggressive. But we are aware that a victory could send us through so we will give it a 100% effort.”
The now or never stakes promise a more attacking game, with both managers expected to change personnel and, in Albania’s case, shape. Andone is likely to lead Romania’s 4-2-3-1, with Ovidiu Hoban tipped to start in midfield in place of the injured Mihai Pintilii. Cana will return to Albania’s defence but, most notably, De Biasi is tempted to return to a 4-3-3 after packing midfield with five players for France. The midfielder Burim Kukeli is suspended, after being booked in both games, and the 22-year-old Ergys Kace is poised to deputise.
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