On March 24, Italy and Albania will face off in Group G of the World Cup qualifying campaign, with the Azzurri coming into the game as heavy favourites. Despite the odds leaning towards Giampiero Ventura’s men, they will come up against a solid Albania side led by former Udinese and Torino boss Gianni De Biasi, who will be looking to get something out of this difficult clash.
These two tacticians have only ever faced off three times before and Ventura is unbeaten. His Lecce saw off Cosenza 3-2 and then drew 0-0 in the 1996-97 Serie B campaign, then Ventura’s Bari defeated Udinese 2-0 in the top flight in January 2010.
Albania are no longer an opponent to be sniffed at, as shown by the fact they reached Euro 2016 under De Biasi’s guidance, their first ever major tournament.
It was a tough learning curve, losing their first two games to Switzerland and France, albeit by fine margins. They frustrated the hosts until the 90th minute, when Antoine Griezmann broke their resistance, but up until that point, De Biasi had set his side up to sit back and absorb pressure, an approach we could well see against Italy on Friday.
In their 1-0 win against Romania, Albania lined up in a 4-1-4-1, a formation that De Biasi has favoured recently in his career, and it worked a treat for them. Bari midfielder Migjen Basha was the anchor and allowed the creative midfielders in front of him to flourish, especially Ledjan Memushaj of Pescara.
That served them well in the final game of the European Championships, but how did De Biasi’s 4-1-4-1 do at the start of the World Cup qualifying campaign? In the first victory against Macedonia, De Biasi changed it up tactically and played a 3-5-2, and it paid off. A solid performance and a goal in the first 10 minutes set Albania up for the victory in a very offensive position, but once again in the very next match away to Liechtenstein, De Biasi set his side up with a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The two holding midfielders provided a solid base for the team, allowing the attackers to flow with freedom, and giving the full backs permission to bomb forward, especially the dangerous Elseid Hysaj of Napoli, who is arguably the most important player for the national side.
However, despite the good start to the qualifying round, the Red and Blacks suffered their first loss against Spain when they played a 4-1-4-1. It seems to be the pattern that when Albania and De Biasi come up against tougher opposition he implements this formation to flood the midfield and essentially kill off the game.
We can fully expect that against Italy, De Biasi will set his side up to stifle any attacks and try to win the midfield battle. Albania will be very motivated to pull off a shock in Italy, considering a portion of the squad is based in Serie A. Of course with De Biasi being a native Italian, he’d love to get one over his homeland.
As previous outings have suggested, De Biasi likes to play slightly defensive in bigger games, but with the full-backs occasionally roaming forward, Italy will have space to work with in that regards. We could well see Hysaj up against his Napoli teammate Lorenzo Insigne on the Nazionale’s left flank.
Can Albania win? Maybe, but only if they stick to their game plan of soaking up pressure and using pace up front to punish the Italian defence. If De Biasi goes with the 4-1-4-1 formation, you will immediately be able to tell how he thinks the match will go.
With Spain already holding Italy to a draw in Turin and Ventura leading a relatively inexperienced squad, it’s arguable the fight for that play-off spot will be between the Azzurri and their Albanian neighbours. That makes this week’s clash at the Stadio Barbera in Palermo all the more important.