Euro 2020: Panucci believes Albania can make it in more defensive style

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 11, 2019 17:46

Euro 2020: Panucci believes Albania can make it in more defensive style

Story Highlights

  • With slightly more than a month to go before Albania takes on the opening qualifier, a home encounter against Turkey, Panucci believes Albania can make it to the top two in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals

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TIRANA, Feb. 11 – Albania’s Italian coach is confident a switch to a more defensive football and some key players making a comeback following injury could see Albania make it through another miracle qualification for the Euro 2020, the same as they did in the 2016 qualifiers when they earned their first-ever appearance at a major competition.

Christian Panucci, who has been in charge of Albania since mid-2017, was reconfirmed as Albania coach in November 2018 despite failing at the inaugural UEFA Nations League campaign and losing a series of friendlies in lackluster performance that irritated both fans and football pundits.

However, the former Italy international who played top European clubs but had little experience as a coach when succeeding compatriot De Biasi who led Albania to France 2016, believes key absences from the former De Biasi and a more attacking football he was experimenting with were the key reasons behind failure.

With slightly more than a month to go before Albania takes on the opening qualifier, a home encounter against Turkey, Panucci believes Albania can make it to the top two in a tough group stage where France are undisputed favorites for a top finish and Iceland, Turkey and Albania will rival for a second spot that also earns direct qualification for the Euro 2020 finals.

Having also lost much of their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign shine during the past couple of years, Albania missed a chance to keep Euro 2020 qualification hopes alive through the inaugural UEFA Nations League by finishing bottom in their League C Group 1 that also featured Scotland and Israel.

Assuming responsibility for the poor results under what he calls a ‘test period,’ the 45-year-old Italian believes a more defensive football like Albania used to play under De Biasi and newly recovered key players who missed most of the 2018 games, will give a boost to Albania’s Euro 2020 prospects.

“2018 was terrible and ugly. Albania is recovering some key players and we hope 2019 will provide some good results. I had unveiled we would be experimenting in one and a half years. We didn't receive positive reaction and will now start over safer switching more backwards. We will have a defensive team which could lead us to success,” Panucci has told a local TV.

Albania has lost eight out of 14 games under Panucci, most of which friendlies but also three Nations League qualifiers against Scotland and Israel, in one of the poorest track records in decades, placing the Italian under constant pressure and making his stay uncertain until last November when Albania claimed a morale booster in a home friendly against tougher Wales.

“I have noticed that when I asked the team to play more open football, we were so fragile. Now we have to close the gaps and be more compact. On our way, because of injuries or suspensions, there will be new players receiving a call, but we already have our group,” says Panucci.

The Italian has called up 22 new players since mid-2017, but only a handful are expected to receive fresh calls for the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The recovery of striker Armando Sadiku who recently moved back to Switzerland following failed short-term spells in Poland and Spain and right winger Odise Roshi leaving behind a knee injury and restarting training in Russia are good news for the Albanian national side.

In addition, Elseid Hysaj is back to the starting eleven with top Italian side Napoli and striker Sokol Cikalleshi has regained shape, scoring in the top Turkish top league.

Two goalkeepers that regularly start with Lazio and Atalanta in the Italian Serie A are also a strength, but the defence and midfield remain weak points that Panucci has to settle.

Panucci believes that just like his predecessor De Biasi, who had a tough start with the national side, he can do better.

“I am really happy to be Albania's coach. Of course I am not happy with the 2018 results, but I am proud to be the coach of this country. One thing is for sure. When I chose the Albanian national side, it was one of the toughest European sides one could pick. That was because it had already qualified for the European championship and under those circumstances you needed to either be mad or have much confidence. And I am still convinced that this team could still do pretty well,” Panucci has said.


Argentinian “Arberesh”

Tomas Guidara could become the first Argentina-born player to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian roots. The 22-year-old Argentinian currently plays as a defender for top Argentina league side Belgrano and could become eligible to join Albania because of his ethnic Albanian “Arberesh” parents who migrated to Argentina from Italy. Southern Italy is the host of a centuries-old Albanian minority who moved there in the 15th century following the death of Albania’s national hero, Skanderbeg, and the Ottomans resuming control of the country after being ousted for a quarter of century.

“Tomas Guidara is an Arberesh, I have talked to him. He is a right-back and currently his family and the football association are negotiating to reach a deal. Procedures have already kicked off and he could be handed the Albanian passport and is willing to come. I have also had cases of other players initially accepting and then changing their minds, but I will tell you more when he gets the Albanian passport,” Panucci has said about the Argentina-based player.

Guidara is a regular starter for Belgrano at the Argentina top league, but his team has been struggling this season, ranking second-to-last after finishing 13th out of 28 last year.

Albania regularly hires plays of ethnic Albanian roots who were born in Kosovo, Switzerland, Italy and Greece but has been facing tougher rivalry with Kosovo which since mid-2016 has its own national side eligible to play in major competitions following FIFA recognition, in a talent split that has also affected the quality of the Albanian national side.


Euro 2020 campaign

Albania will start their Euro 2020 qualifiers on March 22, 2019 with a home encounter against Turkey, a much more experienced national side, but who have been struggling to qualify for major tournaments during the past decade following a golden period in the 2000s.

Albania last played Turkey in a friendly in late 2017 to claim a surprise 3-2 away victory, apparently Pannuci’s best game under the lead of the national side. Both Albania and Turkey are equal on their 10 encounters so far with each having claimed four wins and drawn twice since the early 1970s.

“All four [Group H] top teams reached the Euro 2016 and this is the reason it will be a very tough group. The opening game against Turkey is very important as it can give us new equilibrium in the group stage. The target is to make it to the top two so that we can qualify, but we should not forget the reality and understand that Albania is ranked fourth in the group,” says Panucci.

“If we make it and I am convinced that we can, then everybody will be happy, but if we fail and the football association president is not happy, Panucci goes home, but this is the last thing that I think and the important thing is doing my best," he adds.

Few days after the opening game against Turkey, Albania travels to Andorra, the bottom-ranked team in Group H of the Euro 2020 qualifiers.

The national side are hopeful they will be playing their June 11 home qualifier against Moldova at the under-construction National Arena, the new home of the national side, already in its final stage of construction that is hampered by a €2 million tax dispute with the tax authorities.

Iceland will be another tough opponent for Albania in their bid for a second spot finish having become the smallest nation by population to qualify for the Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup finals, but disappointing in their Nations League campaign last year.

Former Albania coach Gianni De Biasi who led the national side to the finals of France 2016, the national side's first ever appearance to a major tournament, says Albania stands real chances to claim another qualification.

“Albania should believe in the second spot and in qualification. In the Euro 2016 campaign, Portugal had the stature of present-day France but Serbia and Denmark are not like Iceland and Turkey with all due respect [for the latter],” De Biasi has earlier said.

“I believe Albania will rival through the end for a second spot with Island and Turkey,” he adds.

Tirana Times
By Tirana Times February 11, 2019 17:46