When Albania take on Switzerland in their Euro 2016 opener at Stade Bollaert-Delelis on Saturday June 11, it would mark their first ever major tournament appearance. Hopes would be high in the tiny nation especially after their sturdy qualifying campaign.
Albania managed to get through Group I of the qualifiers overcoming stronger nations like Denmark, Serbia and Armenia. With a template based on strong defence and hard work, Albania surprised quite a few with their performances.
Having conceded just five goals in their eight qualifying group games, this is a defence that could pose a question to many stronger nations at the Euros. With no high ambitions of progressing deeper in the tournament, they could prove a dangerous outfit. If they continue to do what they are good at, Albania may frustrate many teams in France.
Their first game opponents Switzerland aren’t boasting of a great form, coming into a major tournament. Having qualified behind England in the qualifiers, their performance in the recent friendlies left their supporters wondering if they can move deeper into the knockouts.
The Swiss also carry baggage of a poor European record having one just once in their last nine games in the continental competition. The squad isn’t settled too and there are murmurs of dissent over the decision to drop Philippe Senderos for the tournament. Not a good build-up to Euros but they have enough quality in the squad to put it past the Albanians.
Switzerland can take comfort though from their record against Albania having won five of their six meetings. Ideally they would gun for a win but going by their poor recent form, even a draw should be considered a good start for the Swiss.
Albania managed to raise many eyebrows with their recent displays. Having lost only four of their last ten matches, the squad is also high on confidence. And those matches included games against France, Portugal, Serbia and Austria, which should put their performance into context. This is a team that cannot and should not be taken lightly!
On the other hand, Switzerland should be worried about their recent form having won only two of their last six matches. Losses against top teams like Belgium, Bosnia, Slovakia and England should be a cause of concern. But the poor returns of Albania in front of the goal should give them a glimmer of hope of starting on the right foot.
Key players and team news
Albania pride themselves on being a stocky defensive unit. They revel in pressing the opposition into making mistakes and punishing them on the counter while maintaining their structure defensively. There is no reason why they wouldn’t replicate this strategy at the Euros which means more hard yards for their lone striker Sokol Cikalleshi. Watch out for the talented midfielder Taulant Xhaka, whose brother Granit would be turning up for Switzerland.
The noise around the absence of Senderos should be silenced by the presence of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaquiri. The Stoke City midfielder could be vital for constructing their attacks with Haris Seferovic likely to lead the line. The midfield tussle between the Xhaka brothers could prove crucial with Granit, who recently signed with Arsenal, expected to have an upper hand.
For all those who consider Albania as minnows, their defensive record should be an answer. They have conceded more than a goal in just 3 of their last 20 games which speaks high volumes of their solid structure at the back. That included a shock 1-0 win over France at home and a credible draw at the Stade de France, less than a year ago. Big stage usually brings some nervy moments but back this side to prove a tough nut to crack!
Switzerland’s recent friendly losses should be a concern as is their previous record from Euros. The pairing of Fabian Schar and Johann Djourou could struggle for pace which may put extra pressure on the midfield. They haven’t been in great scoring form either scoring only 11 goals in their previous 9 encounters – excluding their 7-0 romp over minnows San Marino. And coming up against a defensive unit could spell more trouble for their scoring record.
Albania could frustrate the Swiss but any hopes of an upset win will have to wait, thanks to their lack of firepower upfront.
0-0 draw at odds of 6.5 with Betfred