The Stadio Renzo Barbera in Sicily will be the venue for Italy’s clash with Albania on Friday night. Whilst this World Cup Qualifier will take place away from the comforting surroundings of the Stadio Olimpico, the game itself will have a very familiar feel to it. Serie A is home to many who have made the short journey across the Adriatic Sea to ply their trade in Italy’s top tier. Whether the familiarity will be a positive is yet to be seen, but one thing is for sure, both teams know their enemies intimately.
The Italian flavour of the Albanian national team resonates from the coach. Gianni De Biasi holds dual nationality and was responsible for the team’s incredible achievement as they qualified for Euro 2016. The 60-year-old had a reasonable career that spanned 16 years and saw him wear the shirts of Inter, Vicenza and Palermo to name a few. He will feel at home in Sicily on Friday and will be confident that his team can cause an upset.
His 27-year manager career has seen him stroll through the lower leagues as well as coaching Torino and Udinese. If anyone knows the Azzurri and its players, it is this man, and he isn’t the only man with an inside track.
With three of De Biasi’s back room staff also from the Peninsula and Lorik Cana (once of Lazio and now retired from international football) being their most capped player, the links continue. Even Albania’s all-time top goal-scorer Erjon Bogdani spent most of his career in Serie A with Reggina, Salernitana, Verona, Chievo, Livorno, Cesena and Siena. Perhaps the links are as simple as when Scottish players migrate to England, but the counter argument is that the ‘lesser’ nation in footballing terms always were tough to beat for the English.
The highest profile player to wear the red and black of Albania is Napoli’s promising young right-back Elseid Hysaj. At only 23 years of age he has already accrued 102 appearances for Empoli and over 50 for the Partenopei. He is Albania’s second most expensive player behind Cana after signing for Napoli for €6m, and his energy and dynamism will certainly help his team when they face the Azzurri on Friday.
Intriguingly, it looks as if Hysaj will be directly facing his Napoli teammate Lorenzo Insigne down that flank. They know each other well and it’ll be a chance for both to show off their trickery. That could prove to be one of the key clashes of the game on Friday.
The goalkeepers are also of exceptional quality and are certainly an area that the Albanians can boast about. Atalanta’s Etrit Berisha is perhaps one of the most underrated custodians in Serie A and arguably didn’t get enough chances at Lazio after proving himself when Federico Marchetti was injured. He is suspended for Friday and will probably be replaced by Thomas Strakosha, also of Lazio. He is extremely talented and confident for 22 and perhaps the reason that the Aquile did not fight hard to keep old of Berisha. The game will allow the ‘keeper to gain some much-needed experience.
Rey Manaj and Edgar Cani are a pairing from Pisa that also can pose a threat. Striker Manaj is on loan from Inter and is a very talented forward who has been plying his trade in the lower divisions, as he tries to gain experience before returning to Milan. Cani is more of a nomadic forward who has flitted from the likes of Catania, Palermo and well as stints in Poland and England.
Ledian Memushaj and Arlind Ajeti are also no strangers to Serie A, as they play for Pescara and Torino respectively. Memushaj certainly poses a goal threat from midfield and has a cannon of a shot. He sometimes struggles to deal with his emotions, a part of his game that has seen him carded too many times, but his energy is infectious. Ajeti used to play for Frosinone, but now is in Turin with the Granata. This centre-back is an option, but played no part in the Euro 2016 campaign by staying on the bench.
Finally, Bari’s strong midfielder Migjen Basha will need to be watched. The man from Kosovo has made his way through Turin and Como before ending up in Serie B, as he tries to help his team push back in to the top flight. Atalanta defender on loan at Avellino, Berat Djimsiti, should also not be sniffed at. Left at home for Euro 2016, it should not be ignored that any graduate of the Atalanta system can cause the Azzurri problems.
As the two meet under a Sicilian moon, the Italians must beware. Whilst there are no individual superstars, there still lies a strong team spirit and resilient attitude. They are organised, have good goalkeepers, are dangerous on the break and from set pieces. They work as a unit to allow their creative players to punish the opposition when they can and they play in their own separate grids. They are a team from Albania, but they have a very Italian swagger about them.