Poland restore some pride with fine away win in Tirana
*** Work in progress ***
This is the final game of Group 2. All that was left for either team to play for was honour and prestige. Not that these were unimportant factors, and while the hosts were looking to avoid defeat for the first time in the current qualification, the visitors were hoping to round off what had been a disappointing campaign with a performance and a win.
The table read as follows prior to kick-off:
Whereas the home side would want to break their points duck in order not to end a second successive qualification campaign pointless, the visitors wanted to try and restore some of the people’s faith in the national team by winning their final match after a dismal qualification. Poland were playing their third qualifying match under Mr Strejlau, and had not managed to score against neither England nor Sweden in his two previous outings. He were to keep faith in much the same side which had taken to the pitch in both recent home matches, with the exception of forward K Warzycha, who had hardly been brilliant in national team colours of late, and midfielder Nawrocki. Śląsk Wrocław man Szewczyk came in to replace K Warzycha, whilst right-sided defender Kubicki took over for Nawrocki. There is scant information about this match on record, so a formation has to be guessed at. italia1990.com makes an educated guess that Szewczyk took over for Nawrocki in central midfield. Left-sided defender or centre half Wdowczyk continued as captain, and he was indeed the only Polish player of the 27 they had used who started all of their six qualifying matches. He was not considered an ‘ever-present’, as he had been substituted in the away match in Sweden due to injury.
(The above was written prior to us obtaining video material from the game. Their formation was indeed 3-4-3 for this game, too, like Strejlau had implemented for the two previous qualifiers which he’d overseen.)
Home manager Rreli was without three players who had been regular features in the qualification’s five first matches: defender Lekbello, defender/midfielder Gega, and wide midfielder Millo. They were also without goalkeeper Mersini, who would have started his fifth out of six had he been present here. However, there were so far ever-presents in sweeper (and now captain) Hodja, left-back Jera and midfield schemer Demollari. They were all in tonight’s starting eleven. So too was right-back Zmijani, who featured for the fifth successive qualifier, and who had been one of their better performers, although perhaps slightly less consistent than players such as Hodja and Demollari. There was also no Shehu in the squad, so this meant a second successive start for Kushta, who had scored Albania’s goal in the 3-1 defeat in Stockholm. Minga, the attacking midfielder who had been captain in the Albanians’ first three qualification matches, was again nowhere to be seen. Mr Rreli had favoured a 5-4-1 formation throughout, but he did seem to opt for two starting strikers here like they had done in the 5-0 defeat at Wembley, as both Kushta and Bubeqi were seen from kick-off. For the second qualifier running, and for the third time in the on-going campaign, Albania had only named four from a possible five substitutes. On this occasion, this even applied for the visiting Polish team.
This was the ninth meeting between the two countries. Poland had won the home fixture 1-0, and had a 4-3-1 record from their previous encounters. Albania’s only win had come in a friendly on home territory back in 1953.
Referee was 46 year old Scotsman George Smith. This was his seventh international match since his debut in Wales in 1982. He had not officiated either country previously.
|1 Blendi Nallbani||18||FK Partizani|
|2 Hysen Zmijani||26||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|3 Roland Iljadhi||27′||26||Flamurtari|
|4 Skënder Hodja (c)||29||KS 17 Nëntori|
|5 Arjan Xhumba||21||Luftëtari|
|6 Fatbardh Jera||29||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|7 Sokol Kushta||25||Flamurtari|
|8 Mirel Josa||sub 60′||26||KS 17 Nëntori|
|9 Ledio Pano||sub 74′||21||FK Partizani|
|10 Agim Bubeqi||80′||26||Flamurtari|
|11 Sulejman Demollari||25||Dinamo Tirana|
|12 Muharrem Dosti||25||Labinoti|
|13 Ilir Kepa||on 74′||23||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|14 Arben Arbëri||on 60′||25||Tomori|
|15 Pjerin Noga||26||Dinamo Tirana|
|1 Jarosław Bako||25||Zagłębie Lubin|
|2 Dariusz Kubicki||26||Legia Warszawa|
|3 Piotr Czachowski||23||Stal Mielec|
|4 Dariusz Wdowczyk (c)||27||Legia Warszawa|
|5 Zbigniew Kaczmarek||27||Legia Warszawa|
|6 Robert Warzycha||26||Górnik Zabrze|
|7 Ryszard Tarasiewicz||27||Neuchâtel Xamax|
|8 Roman Kosecki||23||Legia Warszawa|
|9 Roman Szewczyk||77′||24||Śląsk Wrocław|
|10 Dariusz Dziekanowski||sub 34′||27||Celtic|
|11 Jacek Ziober||23||ŁKS Łódź|
|12 Józef Wandzik||26||Górnik Zabrze|
|13 Maciej Śliwowski||22||Stal Mielec|
|14 Janusz Nawrocki||28||Katowice|
|15 Krzysztof Warzycha||on 34′||24||Ruch Chorzów|
The Tirana weather for the occasion was on the bright side: Plenty of sunshine on display. Considering the medio November date, though, you do suspect that it was not too warm, but then again sartorial evidence reveals that this must have been a fine autumn afternoon. Gentlemen had brought their suits out. Many were appearing dapper. Kick-off was set as early as two o’clock, and perhaps does this explain partially the fairly meagre attendance figure of approximately 10,000. Another reason for the low number may of course have been that neither had a whole lot to play for.
Scottish referee George Smith needed two attempts at getting the game under way, as Albania’s Ledio Pano, who was making his first appearance of the qualification, failed to prod the ball in the forward direction, as the rules instruct. He would get it right on his second try, poking the ball carefully into the opposition’s half for his midfield colleague Sulejman Demollari to make the first allowed backwards pass. The game was lawfully under way, the burgundy clad hosts kicking from left to right as the cameras were angled.
Poles look to test hosts immediately
There’s some early respite for the home side, who see Poland gain a free-kick in their left handed channel before even a minute has been played. Captain Wdowczyk whips in a fine delivery with his left foot, a ball which drifts into a territory which is notoriously difficult to defend, namely between the ‘keeper and the defenders. Tall visiting midfielder Szewczyk appears to get to it on the far post, as he’s arrived stealthily between Hodja and Iljadhi, but he fails to connect well, with the ball bundling safely into goalkeeper Nallbani’s arms. And to boot, there had been an offide decision nevertheless, with Dziekanowski probably being the one to stray just off as the ball came in.
The opening few minutes are unremarkable, with both teams looking a bit unorganized, and some players display difficulties in gaining control of the ball, as the pitch appears to be quite bumpy. It will often necessitate two or even more touches to master the conditions and get it down, while some of the sloppy passes can also be blamed on the poor surface.
Pano and Bubeqi ask questions
Poland probably look the slightly less affected side in the early stages, but they will soon consider themselves very fortunate not to go a goal behind, as Albania dish out a fine counter attack with the clock approaching the six minute mark. They win the ball inside their own half to the left, and midfield schemer Demollari picks forward Kushta out with a fine diagonal pass to the right. The Albanian forward got the better of his marker Czachowski, who was ballwatching too much. Kushta in turn picked Pano out with another diagonal ball, this time towards the left hand channel, and the midfielder controlled it well on his chest, let it bounce once, and then fired a half volley straight on to the crossbar from 19 yards with his right boot, with Bako soundly beaten. The ball cannoned back into play, and the Albania number 9 could vent his frustration at his misfortune as the play eventually came to a halt for an incident back inside the hosts’ half of the pitch. Warzycha had attempted to close Pano down, but had not arrived in time to block the shot.
With Pano having gone close, the spirited hosts carve out another fine opportunity just over a minute later, when left-back Jera this time is in the thick of the action, surprisingly popping up out on the right hand side, where he turns and twists libero Kaczmarek following a free-kick played into space by right-back Zmijani. The defender cleverly manages to force a cross with his weaker left foot, with the ball evading Kushta and his marker Czachowski on the near post, only to end up at the feet of Bubeqi, who is tightly surveilled by Kubicki, but still manages to get an outstretched foot to the ball. His finish lacked just about everything, as he couldn’t connect anywhere near as freely as he had wanted, and the effort drifted a couple of yards over.
Visitors let the Albanians know they’re there
The Polish team had not arrived in Tirana just to make up the numbers, and having twice conceded fine chances for the hosts to go in front, they worked out an opportunity for themselves at the other end. Neither team had so far put too much emphasis on applying pressure, and the visitors worked an opening after a throw-in down the left hand side. Kosecki had come across from his right, and held off the relatively soft attempts by centre-back Iljadhi behind him to get to the ball. The wide right forward ran across the pitch just outside the area, before teeing Szewczyk, of all people, up for a strike at goal from 20 yards. The defensive midfield man took a touch to steady himself before putting his effort smack against the upright, with young Nallbani beaten. Nine minutes in, and both teams had struck the woodwork in what was turing into a highly amusing tie already.
Game slows down
Despite the eventful opening sequences of play, it soon becomes clear that the game is not hugely important to either team. The uneven playing surface is hardly a helping factor in establishing swift passing along the ground, but one could at least have been expecting some battle. The visitors start to look settled, and they begin to dictate play, seeing the majority of the possession, although with their direct approach, the Polish rearguard can never allow themselves to become complacent. Whenever there’s an opportunity for the home side’s players to boot it forward in the direction of Bubeqi or, preferably, Kushta, they do so.
Albania look somewhat loosely organized. The fact that they are without a couple of solid defensive players such as Lekbello and Gega becomes apparent, as replacements Xhumba and Iljadhi seem to struggle in their positioning. This certainly applies for the latter, who at times appears a little lost in the space inside left-back Jera. This is where Kosecki is designed to attack, and he will look for pockets of space between said defensive pair. Xhumba, admittedly, is doing a decent job of shadowing Dziekanowski, who had arrived at a free header 11 minutes in following another Wdowczyk free-kick played in from the left, only to see the ball clear the bar by some margin. In open play, the big Polish striker hadn’t always looked too hungry.
The home set-up
While 5-4-1 had seemed to be Albania’s prefered formation until now in the qualification, with a deviation at Wembley for the 5-0 loss against England, when they had made use of two clear strikers, manager Shyqyri Rreli had opted for a similar approach this time around as in London. They had needed to compensate for the loss of various qualification regulars, and had brought in three men who were getting their first minutes in the ongoing campaign. They were hardly an improved unit as a result.
Between the sticks, they once again had to rely on 18 year old Blendi Nallbani, who had so far only played in that Wembley defeat. Halim Mersini had been Rreli’s first choice, though for whatever reason, he must have been unavailable on this occasion. Nallbani, mind, had not been to blame for letting in five back in April, but the goalkeeper’s position is one where you do like to boast a certain level of experience when picking an eleven for a World Cup qualifier.
In front of him, as the libero, Nallbani had the sturdy Skënder Hodja, who had been one of his country’s better players throughout the current qualification. He knew how to position himself, he read the game well, he was competent in the air, and could even advance with the ball at his feet. Since Minga’s final appearance, Hodja had taken the captain’s armband, and it was no surprise that the manager felt a level of trust in Hodja. He did stand out, and in particular when the defence immediately in his vicinity lacked international knowhow and, dare we say, class.
Roland Iljadhi and Arjan Xhumba were the pair tasked with stepping into the shoes of Lekbello and Gega. Well, the latter had also performed in midfield, like during their most recent loss, the 3-1 reverse in Stockholm the previous month, but he was a strong defensive player nevertheless. Xhumba did stick to his marking job very committedly, but did look a little rash. Iljadhi, as we’ve touched on, appeared to struggle in his orientation. He had so far not indicated much in terms of assurance. His plight was hardly aided by the fact that their midfield were often strolled through by the opposition.
Hysen Zmijani (right) and Fatbardh Jera remained the pair of full-backs. They were both decent, and both would come forward when the situation allowed for them to contribute in that direction. Jera, a right-footer playing at left-back, had in fact come close to carving out a chance for himself on the quarter of an hour, when he’d made a long run to get on the end of a punt forward, looking to take the ball down inside the Polish area, only to see it spin away from him and then booted clear by an opponent.
In midfield, Albania sat with Mirel Josa and qualification debutant Ledio Pano in something like a double pivot. Their roles seemed very defined in that Josa was working in central right areas, and Pano in central left territory. Since this is our very first viewing of Pano, it is difficult to say whether or not this is a natural position of his, but he didn’t seem extremely committed to the defensive cause, and so appeared to be the main culprit in allowing the visitors space when coming forward. Josa, at times a fresh breath of air in the Albanian ranks, was left with plenty of ground to cover, and as a result was overrun. The midfield’s more attacking alibi, Sulejman Demollari, also did not go through a whole lot of pressing, and so, Albania’s midfield was exposing gaps every now and then.
Up top, they had Agim Bubeqi working towards the left, while Sokol Kushta, who had slotted home their early penalty in Stockholm to give them the lead, was seen in the right hand channel. They were both marked by each their designated defender, though while Kushta gave Czachowski a difficult time, Bubeqi once again did look a little bit lost at this level. He was of a light frame, and was usually bundled over whenever there was a duel.
The Polish select
25 year old Jarosław Bako was making his fifth successive qualification start, after Józef Wandzik had kept goal in the home game against the Albanians on the opening day. The Zagłębie Lubin ‘keeper had earned himself a 6,70 average rating from his four previous outings, and had not made any telling mistakes leading to goals. His size saw to that he was a fine cross catcher, while there remained some questions regarding his consistency.
The three men at the back were libero Zbigniew Kaczmarek, right-sided centre-back Dariusz Kubicki and left-sided centre-back Piotr Czachowski. Kaczmarek seemed Strejlau’s choice for the spare man post, as this was his third successive turn-out in that position since the new manager had come in. Not so strange, considering they knew each other from the manager’s time at Legia Warsaw. Kaczmarek was a reliable character who went about his task without much fuss, and he did not seem like a player who felt the need to promote himself into the spotlight. As for Kubicki, he was probably better known in a right-back position, though a typically trustworthy customer, he had few qualms in taking up a marking position. It was Kubicki’s task to keep Bubeqi quiet, which needed alert feet. So far he was doing well. As for the versatile Czachowski, he had until now had bigger problems handling Kushta. At times, Czachowski would wish to contribute coming forward, and it did seem as if this was premeditated.
The four men in midfield were 24 year old Roman Szewczyk of Śląsk Wrocław at the base, Swiss based engine Ryszard Tarasiewicz in the more advanced central capacity, the enigmatic Robert Warzycha along the right hand side, while captain Dariusz Wdowczyk had been moved forward from his previous roles at left-back and as the left-sided centre-half.
As mentioned, Czachowski was allowed to come forward on several occasions from his central defensive position, and whenever he did, either Szewczyk or Wdowczyk would drop off and make sure that the Polish remained numerically intact at the back. Szewczyk was also not without attacking contribution of his own, as he’d already struck the post, and also popped up at the far post following a left wing Wdowczyk free-kick. Of fine size, he was certainly someone whom the Albanians needed to attend to at set-piece situations. Wdowczyk provided assuredness along his flank, and first and foremost brought further defensive stability to the team in an area where the hosts had players like Josa and Kushta threatening, and even at times the inventive Demollari.
Tarasiewicz, playing for Neuchâtel Xamax, at the time of the match second in the Swiss topflight, was well known across the continent for his ability to strike the ball with that exquisite left foot of his. With seven goals to his name, the 27 year old was a major asset to his club, and had recorded seven goals for his country in his previous 45 outings. Tarasiewicz also saw plenty of the ball in the centre of the park, and showed fine mobility. He was always looking for a player in an advanced position, unless he had the opportunity to strike at goal himself. A 30 yard free-kick 17-18 minutes into the first half had brought a very routine-like save from Nallbani.
26 year old Robert Warzycha of Górnik Zabrze was making his 13th appearance for his country. He was someone who was capable of slotting into any position along the right, and his versatility had brought him admirers. He was no particular notability in this fixture, though he, too, like Wdowczyk across from him, made sure to assist the centre-back behind him. Kubicki and Warzycha did seem to have a decent understanding between them.
Up top, Dariusz Dziekanowski was the main man, operating through the centre. A physically imposing player, the 27 year old, now of Celtic in Glasgow, was already earning his 56th cap. He had a pair of more outright flankmen around him on this occasion compared to in the two recent home qualifiers, where Krzysztof Warzycha, himself favouring a centre-forward position, had featured towards the left. It had not worked optimally, while Roman Kosecki along the right and the fleet-footed Jacek Ziober down the right provided attacking width this time around.
6 R Warzycha
(15 K Warzycha –