Albania – England
Albania were already in the familiar position of propping up their qualifying group table after two defeats from two. England had been held at home by Sweden in their only game so far. The same Swedes had won here in Tirana, and England were expected to do the same, despite the well-known fact by now that Albania were a difficult proposition on home soil: they rarely lost by more than one goal in front of their own fans.
Since that 0-0 at home to joint Group 2 favourites Sweden, England had only managed a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia (November, friendly), though gained a creditable 2-1 win in Athens against Greece last month. It was fair to say that manager Bobby Robson was still under a bit of pressure, as they also knew that Poland would provide some stiff competition in this group. They could ill afford a slip-up in Tirana. Mr Robson had summoned his finest men for this journey, but would chose to start the game without the elegant Peter Beardsley, relying on Arsenal’s rising midfield star David Rocastle to perform well from his role wide right. Gary Lineker would be on his own up front, but not without support, as Chris Waddle had been expected to start in a role right behind him, and with the greatly talented John Barnes wide left. However, the Liverpool winger always struggled to reproduce his club form when he played with the Three Lions on his chest, and this was his 45th cap. Almost five years had passed since he scored that goal when England won 2-0 against Brazil in the mighty Maracanã. Yet, this is the goal that keeps popping up whenever Barnes is mentioned in connection with the national team.
Perhaps surprisingly, Arsenal’s solid defender Tony Adams was not in the squad. Robson had decided to pair Terry Butcher with Nottingham Forest’s lightening quick Des Walker, possibly realizing that he cannot be without pace in the heart of the defence. Another pacy defender was named among the substitutes: QPR’s Paul Parker, a player able to perform both as a full-back and as a make-shift central defender, was the only substitute defender available to Bobby Robson in Tirana. Manchester United’s often injury plagued midfield star Bryan Robson, now 32, was still an important cog in the English set-up, and he would be alongside Forest’s Neil Webb in the centre of the pitch.
Albania manager Shyqyri Rreli would be naming exactly the same starting eleven that had also taken to the pitch against the Swedish four months earlier. For this their third qualifier for Italia ’90, Albania would have ten players who had started all three matches. The right back position had been Mr Rreli’s only change, when he had replaced Krenar Alimehmeti, who had started Albania’s 1-0 opening loss in Poland, with Hysen Zmijani for the visit of Sweden.
Since the home defeat against the Scandinavians, Albania had played a rare friendly: in January they had held Greece to a 1-1 draw in Tirana. Team captain Arbën Minga had scored their goal, and Rreli had used exactly the same starting eleven as had been seen against Sweden and, indeed, also here against the English. It was a relatively young side, with an average age of 26, two years less than that of the visitors. Only captain Minga was on more than 20 caps: this was his 28th international. Five of their starters came from leading club 17 Nëntori Tirana, with a further three from Partizani, another club from the capital. Both full-backs were representing Vllaznia from Shkodër up north.
Mr Blankenstein, the Dutch referee just turned 40, was in charge of his only second international, and his very first qualification tie. His only previous international had been a friendly between West Germany and Switzerland in Stuttgart some ten months earlier. He was also the account manager for the Dutch Olympic Committee.
|1 Halim Mersini||27||KS 17 Nëntori|
|2 Hysen Zmijani||25||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|3 Mirel Josa||25||KS 17 Nëntori|
|4 Skënder Hodja||28||KS 17 Nëntori|
|5 Skënder Gega||25||FK Partizani|
|6 Fatbardh Jera||29||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|7 Ylli Shehu||22||FK Partizani|
|8 Artur Lekbello||23||KS 17 Nëntori|
|9 Lefter Millo||sub 77′||22||FK Partizani|
|10 Arbën Minga (c)||29||KS 17 Nëntori|
|11 Sulejman Demollari||24||Dinamo Tirana|
|12 Luan Birçë||27||Flamurtari|
|13 Pjerin Noga||26||Dinamo Tirana|
|14 Krenar Alimehmeti||22||KS 17 Nëntori|
|15 Fatmir Hasanpapa||23||FK Partizani|
|16 Kujtim Majaci||on 77′||26||Apolonia Fier|
|1 Peter Shilton||39||Derby|
|2 Gary Stevens||25||Rangers|
|3 Stuart Pearce||26||Nottingham|
|4 Neil Webb||25||Nottingham|
|5 Des Walker||23||Nottingham|
|6 Terry Butcher||30||Rangers|
|7 Bryan Robson (c)||32||Manchester United|
|8 David Rocastle||21||Arsenal|
|9 Chris Waddle||sub 79′||28||Tottenham|
|10 Gary Lineker||sub 79′||28||Barcelona|
|11 John Barnes||25||Liverpool|
|12 Paul Parker||24||QPR|
|13 David Seaman||25||QPR|
|14 Steve Hodge||26||Nottingham|
|15 Peter Beardsley||on 79′||28||Liverpool|
|16 Alan Smith||on 79′||26||Arsenal|
Albania would again use Hodja as the spare man at the back, with Lekbello, the more cultured of the two marking defenders, tasked with seeing after Lineker, whilst Gega would try to attend to the more deep-lying Waddle. However, even if these were the original scenaria, Lekbello and Gega would also at times be seen close to the other English forward than the one they had been instructed with. For the second half, the change would indeed be a permanent one: Gega would attend to Lineker, Lekbello to Waddle. The lively right back Zmijani was never foreign to joining in attack, and even had a magnificent strike just after the midway point of the first half, which was unlucky not to sneak inside of Shilton’s right hand post. Jera, the right-footed left back, was of a less attacking nature. Jera was also operating with a very dodgy throw-in technique. This ought to have been addressed by referees a lot more frequently than it actually was.
Josa was acting as the holding midfielder, and is perhaps not the most mobile player in world football, but nevertheless a solid one. At times he would keep a strict position at the back of the home side’s midfield, and especially if one of the two marking central defenders, Lekbello or Gega, decided to venture forward, which could happen. Just ahead of him in midfield, Josa had the scheming Demollari, who was the player the home side looked to when they wanted to create something. Demollari is good with ball at feet, and can thread a pass in the forward’s direction. He is also the designated corner taker. Minga, who had looked capable in the 1-0 defeat in Poland, had been less of a threat against the Swedish in their last outing, and was once again closely attended to by the English midfield and defence here. Minga’s good in the air; his probably strongest asset. Out on the left hand side, Millo was again seen running up and down, though he would also be coming inside at times, yet it appeared unclear why he was the reigning ‘Footballer of the Year’ in Albania. He had not shone in either of Albania’s first three matches. Up top Shehu, with his blistering pace, was causing the not too impressive English defence a bit of bother, and the unpredictable forward kept Walker on his toes throughout. The only Albanian change came 15 minutes from time, when Majaci, a forward by trade, had been brought on to replace Millo to the left of midfield.
England set out within traditional 4-4-2 frames. However, in the forward department, the second striker, in this case Waddle, was slightly withdrawn, which would often lure his marker (Gega) away from his original position. It did appear a role which Waddle was perhaps not too sure about, as he is normally seen along either flank. However, with Barnes lurking on the left and with the youthful enthusiasm of Rocastle down the right, Waddle had clearly been instructed to stay in field as a supporting act for Lineker, who was into his seventh successive international without a goal. This seemed to hamper him, and he did not play with his usual confidence, a point demonstrated when he had been given an open goal to aim at some 16-17 minutes from the end: From a position wide to the left of the goal, he snapped at his shot, and it ended wide.
There was little doubt that Robson had brought Walker into the line-up in order to keep a close watch on the quick Shehu. The same had been seen against the Swedish in England’s opening qualifier: Walker had been brought on as a sub for the more static Adams as soon as Sweden had introduced Ekström. The defensive cohesion did not appear right, as Walker and Butcher in tandem seemed to lack a bit of understanding. Full-backs Stevens (right) and Pearce were solid as usual, but probably more efficient going forward than they were when defending their lines. It was a good thing for a not too impressive English side that the central midfield duo of Webb and captain Robson were dominant. Had they not been, the outcome of this tie could so easily have been different.
The two English substitutes used were introduced simultaneously: Beardsley had replaced Waddle in the deep-lying forward role, and Smith came on for the luckless Lineker.
The home side will kick the game off in good conditions, although there is a bit of a breeze, which probably is playing into the backs of the visitors during the opening half. The pitch, even if it looks alright from a distance, is hard and makes the ball bubble awkwardly, often demanding the players to take an extra touch in order to get the ball under control. The partizan home crowd sound in good nick as the game gets under way, and immediately Albania put the visiting defence under pressure with a long ball towards their lightening quick striker Shehu. Walker, who will be shadowing Shehu, knocks the ball out for a corner, and eventually veteran goalkeeper Shilton can collect and calm the English down. This direct ball towards Shehu will indeed be a big feature of this afternoon’s Albanian tactics.
Despite the home side’s intent to put England under pressure, it is the away team that seems to settle the quickest. The central midfield duo of Robson and Webb is tenacious and eager to close down the home side’s centre pitch players, and they are reluctant to let Demollari get much time on the ball to try and orchestrate things going forward. As an outcome, Albania try to search out Shehu with direct passes from the back, hit by both Hodja and Gega. The home side have a very capable aerial player in captain Minga, but against an expert in this field in Butcher, even he is unable to make much happen from high balls. They are depending on these long balls towards the forward to drop down behind enemy lines for Shehu to chase, and the home side’s number 7 is trying to escape the attention of the alert Walker, who is equal to him for pace.
Even if they wish to be direct at times, Albania, they also look decent when trying to play their way forward through midfield, and the assured Josa often tries to bring right back Zmijani into play. Zmijani is a fine weapon going forward, and possesses a good right foot. They try to set him up in crossing positions, but it has to be said Pearce does a solid job on the English left-back. The tigerish Forest full-back rarely allows anything to slip through from his side, even how much Albania are trying. Down the other flank there is not a lot happening from Millo, who seems to be controlled well by Stevens, the Everton man.
England do have an abundance of talent available to them, and they have so much strength in the centre of the pitch. Bryan Robson appears to be back to his best, and he is making interceptions, winning battles and distributing the ball well, in particular out towards the right hand side, where Stevens is a willing aid for right midfielder Rocastle, another who is showing some promise during the opening exchanges. Rocastle has a lot of energy in his play, and can deliever a telling cross. He is also seen taking a number of English set-pieces, with his in-swinging left hand corners possibly the greatest threat. Alas, Lineker seems short of confidence in the striker’s role, and he is aptly marshalled by Lekbello, whose young age belies his performance during the first half. Lekbello is also capable on the ball, and does seem to have a lot more to his game than just that of being a marker. His partner Gega adds a bit of physique to the backline, and this seems to unsettle Waddle a bit, with the outcome that the Spurs in-form man tends to drop deep. On the left wing, Barnes is not making a lot of way against the assured Zmijani, so even if England are seeing more of the ball than the home side, they are unable to produce much in way of opportunities.
Just as the game seems to have settled into a pattern of English possession and sound Albanian defending, the visitors take the lead: Stevens plays the ball forward and slightly in field for Rocastle on the English right hand side, and when the Arsenal midfielder prolongues the ball into the path of Waddle, the Tottenham man can chest it down for Lineker inside the area. However, Lekbello gets a solid tackle in, albeit the ball only reaches as far as to Barnes, who has a great opportunity coming his way. It is well-known that the Liverpool wide man is deadly effective with his left foot, a lot less so on his right, but it is with the latter instrument that he gives the English the lead as he shoots from 10 yards and slightly to the left of the goal frame. The ball goes under Mersini and into the back of the net. It is a goal which will silence the home crowd, a factor which will play into the favour of the visiting team.
After being on the back foot for the first part of the opening half, the home side all of a sudden make a few threats during a five minute spell, with Shehu forcing a corner after a burst into the area and a low shot, which Shilton has a bit of difficulty in keeping out on the near post. Right back Zmijani then has a tremendous effort from distance, which just clears the left angle of Shilton’s goal frame, before a slip from Butcher after a forward pass by left back Jera sees Shehu in. However, instead of finishing right away, he decides to try and take the ball around Walker, which he half manages and then gets a shot away which Shilton has to fist over for another corner, but his initial opportunity had been even greater. And this did seem to sum up the Albanians: Despite their often good play, they were time and again let down by poor tactical judgement. The English were by now well aware that they would not have it all their own way, and so needed to regain their grip in midfield. Another quick attack sees one more threat from Albania when Shehu plays Millo through on the left hand side. His right-footed shot from the edge of the area is tipped over by the increasingly worked Shilton. At this rate, the English lead could so easily crumble.
Having been unable to make their spell of pressure count, Albania soon again drop their intensity levels, and England come close to adding to their lead when the industrious Rocastle plays a one-two with Lineker inside the area, gets to the byline and crosses hard and low, only for Robson to just miss out on the far post. Any form of connection would have doubled the English lead. A 1-0 half time lead will see the management team of Bobby Robson and Don Howe pleased, but they know they still have a lot of work to do in order to return back home to Great Britain with both points in the bag. Albania, on the other hand, won’t be too disheartened following the first half, as they did show during their spell of dominance that they had been capable of creating chances against an English back four which had not always seemed too confident.
Lineker and Waddle get the match back into action through their kick-off to start the second half. There is not a lot happening as far as goalmouth action is concerned early doors, but Albania are more conscious about knocking the ball in behind the English defence for Shehu to try and run onto, and they will often try and aim it wide towards Stevens’ side of the pitch. This means Shehu gets the attention of both Stevens and Walker, leaving space for other players in the centre, but they are unable to take advantage. And whilst Albania are direct, England appear to be the contrary, always wanting to go through their midfield, reluctant to hit it long and into space. Barnes does however seem more alert early in the second half, and he is able to swing in a couple of crosses. One finds the head of Lineker, but it is an easy save for Mersini to make. What is evident now in the second half, is that the Albanian markers have switched man: Gega is now looking after Lineker, with Lekbello on Waddle. Come to think of it, there had been signs of the same towards the latter end of the first half.
There is no clear rhythm to the game in the first part of the second half, with balls given away by both teams and a few free-kicks awarded. There is a moment of attack when Rocastle robs Jera of the ball in the Albanian defender’s own half, and he plays Lineker through. The forward’s shot from inside the box at an angle is well over, though, and then Zmijani brings down Pearce level of his own penalty area. Both Rocastle and Barnes stand over the ball, with the latter to whip it in from his left foot, and he turns provider as Robson gets up ahead of Hodja to steer the ball past the dive of Mersini and into the net for 2-0. It is Robson’s 24th international goal, and it surely gives the English an unassailable advantage. Albania have earlier showed that their heads drop when they fall behind, and even if the visit of the mighty English is a huge event to the most isolated European country, this will test their resolve.
The passage of play which succeeds the goal is laboured, not equipped with a lot of pace. England are content with being two goals up in a difficult venue and on a troublesome pitch. They no longer feel much need in trying to be creative. Albania, on the other hand, to their credit do not falter. They might have lost momentum, but do not wish to suffer a big defeat against players whom the locals in the crowd (indeed, only 137 registered English fans are among the crowd) know through television. Left back Jera has a couple of attempts on goal following left wing corners: The first hits Webb and goes out for another corner, this time from the right hand side, and his second finish, a left foot effort from inside the box, is not powerful enough to bother Shilton. The opportunity which next comes England’s way is much bigger: Robson plays Lineker through after he had won the ball from Demollari deep inside his own half. The Barcelona striker had timed his run to perfection, and he takes the ball round the onrushing Mersini. However, in doing so, he gets out wide, and from 12 yards out from the byline, he tries to squeeze the ball into an open net from just inside the penalty area with his left foot. As both Hodja and Gega come rushing back to try and prevent the ball from crossing the goalline, Lineker’s shot only goes into the side netting. It was not a very confident finish from someone who’s on a barren run in national team colours.
After Lineker’s miss, Albania bring on Majaci for Millo, a straight player swap without much tactical tinkering. England follow suit in taking off both Waddle and Lineker, replacing the forward duo with Beardsley and Smith respectively. Whereas Beardsley, one league goal in four months for Liverpool despite featuring regularly, and the goal had come in his previous match, was an experienced player at international level, Arsenal forward Smith won his only third cap. They too both slotted into the roles of their predecessors. Together they conjure a goalscoring opportunity for Beardsley, when Smith gets to the byline and pulls the ball back to his partner, who can’t connect cleanly due to an awkward bounce right in front of him. Zmijani can clear it away about a yard before it would have crossed the goalline, as it would have done with Mersini beaten. Towards the end, the lanky Smith will have an attempt of his own, when he reaches back to take the ball on the volley after a Barnes cross from the right had been headed back to Smith by Webb on the far post. Apart from a late sliced shot well wide by Josa, one of two Albanian players to wear short sleeves (the other is Gega), which is more or less a trademark of his, there is no further action.
England get a deserved win, despite never being overwhelming. They had times when they were shaky at the back, and had the Albanian players’ tactical awareness been better, it could have been a different story, as the home side had a fine spell of pressure just after the midway point in the first half. The English midfield had a good game, with both Webb and in particular Robson dominating their opponents, and Albania always had to pay attention to England’s dangerous players in the final third of the pitch. Mr Robson will have been ever so pleased to get a win by a two goal margin to better the Swedish result in Tirana, and this will have relieved some of the pressure off his shoulders. Albania have no reason to be ashamed of their performance, as they put up a decent fight.
1 Mersini 6.7
could possibly have done better with the opening goal, but other than that does little wrong, even if he is not that much tested despite the visitors’ superior possession
2 Zmijani 6.8
plays with a lot of energy and is a big player along the home side’s right hand side. Concedes a few crosses to Barnes after the break, and gives away the free-kick which precedes the second goal
3 Josa 6.6
often exposed to fierce challenges from the English midfielders, but never loses his calm. Often distributing well, and covers a fair amount of ground. Not very creative
4 Hodja 6.7
sweeps well, confident on the ball, but loses out in the air to Robson for 2-0. Is solely focused on the defensive duties of his game
5 Gega 6.8
the more physical player of the two man-markers. Also often seen knocking it long from the back and up to Shehu. Strong in the challenge
6 Jera 6.7
has a right old tussle with Rocastle throughout, but does well. Also a bit more daring in the attacking end of the pitch after the break, which sees him have two pops at goal. How the officials avoid punishing his dodgy throw-ins continues to amaze
7 Shehu 6.8
has a difficult job on his own up front, but causes Walker some trouble with his strong running, especially during the opening half. Good at threatening whatever space is left behind by the English defence, and should possibly have scored in that strong Albanian spell just after the halfway point in the opening half
8 Lekbello 6.9
sound man-marking job on Lineker first, then later on Waddle and Beardsley. Confident on the ball, and does not make a lot of mistakes. Even seen venturing across the halfway line on a couple of occasions
9 Millo 6.4
was battling well, but still largely anonymous down the left hand side
(16 Majaci –
shows a couple of nice touches, but by the time he comes on there’s no hope of an Albanian resurrection)
10 Minga 6.4
poses a lesser threat than Shehu, but makes himself available quite well, often on the right hand side. Distribution poor. One of few Albanians able to challenge the English in the air, yet a lot more is expected of the captain and the team’s most internationally experienced player
11 Demollari 6.8
the Albanian midfield schemer demands the ball a lot in central positions, and he does try to pick out more forward players, even if he is not always succesful. Struggles to get to grip with the physical nature of the English midfielders
1 Shilton 7.2
surprisingly agile for someone his age. Catches crosses with great confidence, and does make a couple of good stops during the Albanian spell of pressure during the first half
2 Stevens 6.9
solid defensively, never exuberant coming forward, but offers a steady alternative to Rocastle down the right hand side. Very much a performance which typified his qualities as a player
3 Pearce 7.2
controls his left hand side well, offers an alternative going forward, but crossing lets him down. As always strong in the tackle
4 Webb 7.5
another who goes through a lot of running in the English midfield, and who is also not afraid of putting his foot in. Has a fine range of passes, even if the uneven pitch hardly suits his style of play
5 Walker 6.9
the better of the two English centre halfs, but even he finds Shehu a tricky customer at times. Keeps things simple, and does rescue the visitors with his speed once
6 Butcher 6.7
awkward performance, does not seem too settled with Walker as his partner. Does well in the air, but has trouble when challenged for pace by Shehu
7 Robson 8.0
a captain’s performance. Shows his aggression levels from kick-off, and never shirks a tackle. Always lets the opponents know he is there. Has a couple of misplaced passes, but scores with a typical header of his, and bosses midfield throughout
8 Rocastle 7.5
goes through a great deal of work, and gets into crossing positions down his right hand side. A very positive game indeed
9 Waddle 6.7
a lot of running off the ball to try and confuse the home defenders. Chests it down for Lineker right before the opening goal, but a bobbly pitch does not suit him well, and his runs with the ball are rarely threatening
(15 Beardsley –
comes on in the deep-lying forward role and has a couple of touches to flick it on for Smith, but to little effect)
10 Lineker 6.4
does a lot of running, but hardly gets into goalscoring positions. Wastes the one he has right before he’s substituted. Did have a hand in the opening goal though
(16 Smith –
holds the ball up well, wins a corner, and almost sets up Beardsley for a third. A fine cameo)
11 Barnes 7.2
does little other than score the goal in the opening half, but is more visible after the break, when he both assists Robson with 2-0 from a free-kick, and even swings in a couple of crosses from either flank