Albania host Gareth Southgate’s England on Sunday evening as the top two sides in Group I of World Cup qualifying face off.
The Three Lions are clear favourites in the group and kicked their campaign off in style with a 5-0 trouncing of San Marino on Wednesday. England have also only ever known victory against Albania, boasting an aggregate score of 12-1 across the two sides’ four meetings.
However, England haven’t faced Sunday’s hosts in nearly 20 years, and Albania represent a very different prospect since then. Unbeaten in five, and winning their last three, they have shown quality of late, proving to be a very competent underdog, and will feel realistically optimistic of finally reaching the finals of a World Cup in 2022.
Here’s what you need to know about the Albanian national team ahead of the showdown in Tirana.
Albania typically set out in a 3-5-2 formation and, having kept three clean sheets in their last five, put the impetus on solidity at the back.
The wing backs will provide a dynamism and threat to their opposition when going forward – as seen above by Ermir Lenjani bombing forward to grab the winner against Andorra last time out.
Creativity in midfield also helps the side build forward, while aerial ability up top gives them an outlet, and scoring option, in the final third.
Predicted XI: Berisha; Veseli, Kumbulla, Djimisti; Hysaj, Bare, Laci, Memushaj, Lenjani; Manaj, Cikalleshi
At the back, they boast Berat Djimsiti, who is a regular for the explosive Atalanta. The centre back plays in a back three for both club and country so is a vital part of the Albania side.
Espanyol’s Keidi Bare will look to provide a creative spark in the centre of the field. Albania’s number seven has two goals in 11 caps, while also grabbing the assist for their goal on Wednesday.
Sokol Cikalleshi provides an aerial presence up top that can prove vital when defending for the majority of a game. He has also scored eight goals in his last nine international appearances – spanning back to August 2019 – including a goal against France in a 4-1 loss.
Napoli’s Elseid Hysaj is arguably the Eagles’ most important player.
The 27-year old isn’t the most capped in the squad (eight behind goalkeeper Etrit Berisha’s 65) and doesn’t provide a goal threat, having notched just one goal for his country – one of three throughout his senior career.
However, having been with Napoli since 2015, the full back has played at a high level for a long time (three time Serie A runner-up and 2020 Coppa Italia winner) and provides the mentality and experience that make Albania a force, even captaining his country in Berisha’s absence.
As a wing back for his country, he also chips in with a few assists and is able to use his passing ability more effectively than in the four at the back he plays in at club level.
Marash Kumbulla, Rey Manaj and Bare are all talented young players, playing at a high level. However, alongside them, and even more exciting, is Armando Broja.
The 19-year old striker has featured four times for Albania thus far and, although he hasn’t yet notched a goal, is a threat inside the area. He is currently on loan at Vitesse from Chelsea (ah, one of those) and has bagged nine goals and two assist in 23 Eredivisie matches this campaign.
The Slough-born teenager has been at Chelsea since 2009 and managed a senior appearance for the Blues in March 2020, replacing Olivier Giroud in a 4-0 win against Everton.
Albania are coached by Italian Edoardo Reja.
The 75-year old has been in management since 1979 and has had 27 spells across 24 teams. Now that’s what you call a journeyman!
He is probably best known for restoring Napoli’s reputation in the mid-noughties. After two relegations in the space of four years, the Italian side dropped to the third tier and failed to come back up first time around.
Reja took charge in 2005 and dragged them into Serie A, achieving back-to-back promotions in 2005/06 and 2006/07.