Euro 2024 team guides part five: Albania | Albania

This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2024 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 14 June.

Prospects

Albania had an unbelievable run during the qualifiers, which was even more surprising given they were coming out of one of the worst years in their footballing history, having won one match out of 11 in 2022. Their fortunes changed immediately when Sylvinho was appointed in January 2023, and the team went on an eight-match unbeaten run, which included wins against Poland and the Czech Republic that saw the “Red and Blacks” win Group E and qualify for only their second European Championship finals.

Players such as Armando Broja, Marash Kumbulla and Rey Manaj were supposed to have a central role but were missing because of injuries. The Brazilian manager had the audacity to put the likes of Jasir Asani, Mario Mitaj, Mirlind Daku and Arbnor Muja, who had previously never played international football, in the lineup and all proved decisive in the outcome, even if the displays at times were not particularly brilliant.

Form will be a concern in the Euros, with several important players arriving with a lack of minutes this season. This includes the two goalkeepers, Empoli’s Etrit Berisha and Brentford’s Thomas Strakosha, and the decisive long-range goalscorer Asani, who played only eight minutes of club football so far in 2024 because of contract disputes with his South Korean side Gwangju.

Another concern was Sylvinho’s final squad choices, suddenly leaving out regulars such as Sokol Cikalleshi, Myrto Uzuni and Keidi Bare and offering incohesive explanations of the reasons why, ranging from “my criteria for the list was not playing time with their teams” and “the squad was not based on what happened in qualification” to “I changed the list three days ago”. The selection has put pressure on the Brazilian that was not there before and he now needs to prove to everyone that he was right. Cikalleshi, who turns 34 later this summer, immediately quit international football after the omission.

Albania at least won their first warm-up game against Liechtenstein 3-0 and the FA has said there is an agreement in place for the Sylvinho to continue to lead the team until 2026.

The manager likes a 4-3-3 setup, and knows he needs all his squad in top condition to be part of it. “The players who do not run will not join us,” was the quick answer Sylvinho gave after two lacklustre performances in the March friendlies, losing 3-0 to Chile and 1-0 to Sweden. The double pivot in midfield needs offensive players to be involved directly in defensive duties.

That will certainly be the case in a Euro 2024 group involving matches against Italy, Croatia, and Spain, where the defence will be tested to its limits. Counterattacking is the weapon Albania have used so often, and it relies on the speed and technical capabilities of the wingers in particular. That is not going to change against opponents of such calibre in Group B.

The coach

There were plenty of sceptics over the appointment of Sylvinho in January 2023. The former Arsenal and Barcelona player had started his managerial career badly in a short spell at Lyon and had not fared much better back at his former club Corinthians in Brazil, where he lasted only nine months. But internationally he had been an assistant to Tite with Brazil and right from his first training session in March last year it was clear what he wanted and expected from the team. “We are sweat, heart, and soul” is a phrase he often uses during his press conferences to describe what the team should give, more than tactics. “I can change the 4-3-3 system into whatever we want, but without that commitment from all, we are not a team,” he adds.

Sylvinho took over as Albania’s head coach in January 2023 and steered the side to Euro 2024 qualification 10 months later. Photograph: Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

The icon

While he struggled for game time under the former manager Edoardo Reja, Kristjan Asllani became a regular starter for Albania under Sylvinho, who gave him the space he needed to express his capabilities. Everything passes through the 22-year-old midfielder, who worked as a part-time waiter in the town where he grew up before making it through the ranks of the first team at Empoli. His progress has been enormous, as evidenced by the fact that he has become a reliable backup for Hakan Calhanoglu at Internazionale. “He has grown up and given us important answers, often when playing important matches,” says Simone Inzaghi, manager of the Serie A winners, under whose guidance Asllani is clearly thriving.

One to watch

The rapid evolution of Mario Mitaj looks set to earn him a move in the foreseeable future. The left-back has impressed for Albania and Lokomotiv Moscow, where he is deployed quite regularly as a defensive midfielder. As a result many clubs are monitoring him, and a move to one of Europe’s bigger leagues during the summer is his dream, so some more solid performances in Germany would not go amiss.

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The maverick

There is always a feeling regarding Rey Manaj that he will do something unexpected in the national team shirt. Quite a controversial player in his earlier days regarding his communication with managers, he has always behaved perfectly on the pitch for Albania. But getting booked with nearly as much frequency as he scores goals for his Turkish club, Sivasspor, is a problem Manaj will have to address sooner rather than later if he wants to avoid becoming a liability to the national team.

The spine

Sylvinho has created a solid backbone to the Albanian side and the experience of veteran players has helped the youngsters adapt quickly. The vastly experienced No 1 Etrit Berisha and Berat Djimsiti give this team the calmness they often need at the back. Then everything goes through Kristjan Asllani, who is the deep midfield playmaker who puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. Up front, leaving Sokol Cikalleshi out of the squad means Armando Broja is set to start and to help the team’s link-up play while also opening space up for the wingers to come into play.

Probable starting XI

Celebrity fan

Albanian personalities will flock to Germany to attend the Euros, but there is one man many Red and Blacks fans might not want to see, especially in the stadium: the Albanian prime minister, Edi Rama. That is due to his “football curse”, as fan folklore would have it. Rama often attends events or electoral campaigns wearing international teams’ football kits, and strangely enough, that often precedes a calamity for said team. If you ask Albanian fans, Manchester City losing to Real Madrid on penalties in the Champions League quarter-finals in April might have had something to do with Rama unveiling City’s new Albanian academy project on the same day in Tirana.

Culinary delight

While fried potatoes, cheese and salami accompanied by alcohol might be the preferred finger food for Albanians during football matches, many will not betray their love for byrek. The traditional Albanian pie comes in different flavours, be it the vegetarian type, with cheese, yoghurt or with minced meat. Just ask Hans-Peter Briegel, the German manager who often ordered these treats during his stay in Albania when he managed the national team from 2002-2006.

The Albania team guide was written by Ermal Kuka for Panorama

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