Albania's teenage 'keeper plays well despite conceding five times to rampant hosts
Only 11 days earlier tragedy had struck on the English domestic scene: 95 (later one more victim would be claimed) supporters of England’s most-winning club Liverpool had perished in the chaos that happened during an FA Cup semi-final against Nottingham Forest at Hillsborough in Sheffield. In light of this, a World Cup qualifier had seemed unimportant. However, life had to move on, and so the visit of Albania went ahead according to schedule.
England had perhaps been slightly disappointed not to have won at home to Sweden in their opening qualifier, but the 2-0 win in Tirana, albeit an expected two points, will have somewhat dampened the ‘Robson out’ chorus. And with the Albanians set to enter the Wembley turf ultimo April, England were expected to romp into solitary pole position. With Sweden due to face Poland in Stockholm a fortnight later, the English could then sit back and watch their two group rivals hit out at each other.
England team news
England manager Robson still had his doubters, and the two winter performances, a 1-1 draw in Saudi Arabia and a 2-1 win in Greece, had not managed to mute them all. They were expected to turn in a performance and get a few goals against the Albanian visitors. Liverpool forward John Barnes had not wished to play so shortly after Hillsborough and was not included in the squad, and so the only player from Liverpool among the English 16 was fellow forward Beardsley. Still, there would be an abundance of forward talent in the team, and after his impressive performance against the Albanians last time around, Arsenal wide midfielder Rocastle kept his starting place at the right hand side of midfield. At the heart of defence, Notts Forest’s Walker, with his pace, kept his place alongside the iconic Butcher, keeping Arsenal’s Tony Adams out of the side. Adams was not even to be seen among the five substitutes, as Mr Robson went for the more versatile Parker of QPR, who was capable of playing in any position across the back four, though predominantly a right back or a sweeper. Parker was yet another player well equipped for pace. There was also an inclusion in a World Cup qualifying 16 for the first time for Tottenham’s exciting young playmaker Gascoigne, who was having a fine first season in the English capital after his move down from Newcastle in the North East last summer.
Albania team news
The Albanian visitors had lost all of their three matches to date. They had probably been hoping to pick up the odd point at home, and had looked good for longer spells against Sweden, but had eventually lost as the Scandinavian visitors turned the game around within a few minutes during the second half. England had been more comfortable in their win in Tirana. And no one were expecting anything from the Albanians in London. So far manager Rreli had made precious few changes in his selections, with a total of only 12 starters over the three matches. This time around he would have no chance to keep faith with the same eleven which had taken to the field in the two home matches against Sweden and England, as both goalkeeper Mersini, deep-lying midfielder Josa and attacking midfielder and skipper Minga were out injured. They were all important players with plenty of international experience, and would be sorely missed in a very difficult venue. In order to replace ‘keeper Mersini, Rreli had picked a debutant barely 17 years of age: Blendi Nallbani from Tirana club Partizani. Nallbani was said to be a fan of English pop group Duran Duran as well as of Liverpool FC, and so will probably have been particularly excited to be making his international bow at Wembley. Filling in for Josa in midfield would be another debutant from Partizani in Fatmir Hasanpapa. And replacing Minga in a more advanced role was forward Agim Bubeqi from Flamurtari, based in the southern coastal town of Vlorë. This would leave little doubt that Albania would kick off with two strikers. Earlier, Minga had been playing just behind Shehu in the lone striker’s role. Solid defender Hodja, the squad’s second most experienced international, behind Demollari only, took the captain’s armband in the absence of Minga.
Referee was 45 year old Norwegian Einar Halle, who was an experienced gentleman on the international scene, with this being his tenth time of being in charge of an international. It was already his second ’90 qualifying match, as he had been in East Berlin last October, officiating the match between East Germany and Iceland. It was his first international in Great Britain, and he had not refereed neither England nor Albania previously.
This was Albania’s first ever visit to England. Indeed, the two countries’ only previous meeting had been the clash in Tirana the previous month.
|1 Peter Shilton||39||Derby|
|2 Gary Stevens||sub 76′||26||Rangers|
|3 Stuart Pearce||27||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||sub 66′||21||Arsenal|
|9 Peter Beardsley||28||Liverpool|
|10 Gary Lineker||28||Barcelona|
|11 Chris Waddle||28||Tottenham|
|12 Paul Parker||on 76′||25||QPR|
|13 Chris Woods||29||Rangers|
|14 Steve Hodge||26||Nottingham|
|15 Paul Gascoigne||on 66′||21||Tottenham|
|16 Alan Smith||26||Arsenal|
|1 Blendi Nallbani||17||FK Partizani|
|2 Hysen Zmijani||25||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|3 Agim Bubeqi||26||Flamurtari|
|4 Skënder Hodja (c)||28||KS 17 Nëntori|
|5 Skënder Gega||25||FK Partizani|
|6 Fatbardh Jera||29||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|7 Ylli Shehu||23||FK Partizani|
|8 Artur Lekbello||23||KS 17 Nëntori|
|9 Lefter Millo||22||FK Partizani|
|10 Fatmir Hasanpapa||sub 32′||24||FK Partizani|
|11 Sulejman Demollari||24||Dinamo Tirana|
|12 Edmond Kela||21||–|
|13 Pjerin Noga||on 32′||26||Dinamo Tirana|
|14 Roland Iljadhi||25||Flamurtari|
|15 Arben Arbëri||24||Tomori|
|16 Ilir Kepa||23||Vllaznia Shkodër|
England saw Waddle quite loosely attached to the left; he would roam anywhere which suited him. Beardsley had the by now customary deeper forward role, and traditionally he is difficult to pick up for the opponents coming deep to collect the ball. Rocastle operated mainly down the right, but was more quiet than he had been in the opposite fixture. In midfield, Robson had no limits to his forward runs, and would often get into finishing positions. Webb was clearly the deeper of the two. At the back, manager Robson had always been a bit worried when faced by lightening quick opposition strikers, and so Walker would again keep an eye on Shehu, with Butcher more often challenging the taller and less mobile Bubeqi. Mr Robson had even included a pacey defender on the bench in Parker, in case Walker would have to go off. He just did not take any risks with Shehu’s pace.
The visitors were used to their two marking central defenders looking after each their striker. However, with Beardsley coming deep, Lekbello was left without a designated player to look after, and so would try to attend to Waddle whenever the winger came in field. Gega was seeing to Lineker. Hodja was, as always, the spare man at the back. At right back, the comfortable Zmijani was licensed to cross the halfway line, with Jera on the opposite side a bit more cautious in his forward approach. Hasanpapa filled in for Josa in central midfield, but seemed out of his depth, and he would indeed be substituted just after only half an hour of play. Demollari was again the man trying to make things happen from midfield, and would be orientated slightly to the right of centre, whereas Millo, who had earlier been more or less glued to the left hand side, was this time around seen more in support towards the centre of the pitch, albeit still with a preference for the left hand channel. Of the two strikers, Bubeqi had seemed like the man who would try and hold any ball up, whereas the quick Shehu would challenge the English defence for pace.
After conceding the second goal, Albania would release Gega from his marking of Lineker, possibly due to his slackness in both situations leading to English goals, and Gega would instead be told to try and come a bit higher in the pitch to try and pick up Beardsley. It was only sparingly a success. Lekbello would be marking Lineker from then on.
Albania after the half hour mark:
Rreli brought on debutant defender Noga for midfielder Hasanpapa, who was indeed a debutant himself. It seemed nothing but a tactical switch. Albania had been overrun in midfield, and to try and shore up things, the manager took off the number 10. Zmijani, who had looked solid at full-back in both home matches, against Sweden and England, came into the holding midfield role, with Noga taking to right back. The substitute is a tall character, but was also not foreign to going forward from his full-back position.
England would bring on starlet Gascoigne for Rocastle, a Tottenham player replacing one from arch rivals Arsenal, which meant Webb was shifted out to the right hand side of midfield to allow ‘Gazza’ central space alongside Robson. The wasteful England captain appeared to drop somewhat deeper after the introduction of Gascoigne.
The final substitution of the game saw Mr Robson bring on defender Parker for right back Stevens in a straight swap.
Albanian team captain Hodja passed over a vast bouquet of flowers to English captain Robson prior to kick-off. This was their token of empathy in these doldrum days for the English after the tragic events of Hillsborough. The home team kicked off through Lineker and Beardsley, and it would not take long before England made inroads into Albanian territory. England might not be what a lot of their club sides used to be until just recently with long balls from the back, but they do have an urgency about them when it comes to working the ball into forward areas; they’re not playing it all cuddly back and forth in midfield. With direct players such as the forward three or four, depending on how one chose to see Rocastle, as a midfielder or as part of a foursome attack, this appeared to be the only viable solution. And when passes between these forward aces were played at a swift pace, it would often be too much for the visiting defence. Waddle even revelled in a couple of tasty nutmegs.
Albania probably were a bit unsure of what to expect from young Nallbani between the posts. He was a tall, gangly figure, and did not convey the same message of certainty about him that Mersini had done. However, he had a couple of early touches of the ball which will have made his tension ease up a bit, and he appeared confident when kicking the ball. Yet Albania were inferior in the opening passages of play. As for nerves, not only Nallbani will have been stricken. There were a host of visiting players who were below par in the opening 15 minutes or so, and by that time it was already time for a reality check: the scoreboard said England 2, Albania 0. For 1-0, Waddle had driven a probing pass from the left towards Rocastle on the far side in the Albanian penalty area, a pass which had been cut out by left back Jera’s head. Unluckily for him, his attempted clearance had fallen perfectly for Lineker, who was gratefully on hand to finish with his head from close range. After almost a year and seven matches with no international goals, the Barcelona forward had finally broken the duck. England were ahead. Lineker’s marker Gega had been ball-watching and drifted too far away from his man. Not long after, Beardsley would add another: Stevens played Lineker in down the right hand channel, and the striker got free from Gega once again. As he made his way into the area and towards the byline, he cut the ball back 45 degrees in text-book like manner, and there was the Liverpool forward to wriggle away from the attention of Lekbello and Hodja, and also the back-tracking Gega, and slot it home beyond the exposed Nallbani’s reach. Within 12 minutes, the hosts were two goals to the good. England were coasting, and Albania looked to be all over the shop early doors.
The start was something of a worst-case scenario for the visitors. However, it could also lead to them dropping their raised shoulders and play with a bit more freedom of expression. Yet it was the home side that kept the pressure up, not allowing Albania time nor space on the ball. This level of aggression is beginning to typify the English team by now, and Albania did not have the quality in their team to cope with it. Their central midfield were indeed short of someone who was able to hold onto the ball in tight situations, and the absent Josa was sorely missed. Hasanpapa, on his debut, proved to be too much of a gamble, and it would not be too long before Rreli realized it had been a mistake to let him start in the defensive midfield role. Beardsley, Waddle and not least Rocastle were all doing a lot of work to try and win the ball high up in the pitch, and just behind them both Robson and Webb were also contributing to putting Albania under the cosh. Robson, not famously renowned for his shooting from distance, had an attempt relatively comfortably dealt with by Nallbani, whilst Waddle, enjoying the amount of freedom he had been given, had hit a weak shot wide when he should at least have hit the target. When Albania tried to play either Shehu or left-sided midfielder Millo in, it would usually not take long before the ball was back with the English team again. Bubeqi’s presence up top was hardly felt, and Shehu, already a lone striker in Albania’s three earlier qualifiers, had to manage more or less on his own. What little input came from midfield was due to Demollari’s craft and vision, and during one rare spell of Albanian possession deep inside the English half, the Dinamo Tirana man would score a sensational goal. Alas, it was ruled out for what must have been offside against striker Bubeqi, who however did not seem to interfere with play: Stevens and Butcher had pulled out just before Demollari struck, leaving debutant Bubeqi just offside. Technically, the decision could be supported, but in reality the striker did not obstruct Shilton whatsoever. Albania were enraged, and probably rightly so.
It was a first half which contained a good few scoring opportunities for England captain Robson, who was so strong when he made his runs into the box; often he would score with a precise header. He ought to have done so during the opening 45 against Albania too, particularly as Webb had played him on with a delicious pass from the opposite side of the area. Unmarked at a bit of an angle, Robson steered his header wide. It was definitely not a miss that typified the Manchester United ace.
Having conceded the midfield area to the hosts, Albania felt they had to change something, and so Rreli proceeded to take off Hasanpapa and bring on another debutant in his place in defender Noga. This lead to a switch for full-back Zmijani, who would come into the more defensive central midfield role, the position left vacant through Josa’s absence. Zmijani might have been a full-back by trade, but he was also quite comfortable on the ball, as he had proved in both of the two matches he had featured in previous to the Wembley challenge: Sweden and England at home. So it was easy to understand what Rreli wanted with this move: He tried to compose a midfield less prone to conceding possession. Noga, a relatively tall figure and more with the build of a centre back rather than a full-back, went to right back. He did not seem fazed or daunted by the task, and slotted relatively comfortably into the full-back position. In the heart of the defence, Lekbello had taken over the task of marking Lineker, as Gega had not been very efficient. Gega had instead been told to push a bit higher in order to try and catch the lurking Beardsley. Despite several English chances even after going two goals up, the half-time score remained 2-0.
It is the Albanian strikers duo of Bubeqi and Shehu which kicks the second half into life. The English immediately win the ball back and mount an attack, and within the first few seconds, the teenage goalkeeper at the visiting end gets another feel of the ball as he collects Webb’s volley near the angle between the post and the crossbar. Webb had struck Pearce’ cross on full volley, and it was a fine piece of individual art from the Nottingham Forest midfield man, who perhaps wanted to say he was not just going to sit deep for the second half. In order to pay tribute to the recently deceased Liverpool fans, the Wembley crowd are heard renditioning “You’ll never walk alone”, the famous Liverpool FC supporters’ anthem.
Albania are finding the relentless English high pressure game very difficult to cope with. The English make lots of interceptions high up the pitch, and the visitors are never allowed any time to build from the back. If they wish to get across the halfway line and into the English half, they must play it long for one of the two strikers, but neither is a match for Walker or Butcher at the heart of England’s defence. And if Albania try to maintain possession within their own half, they are being put under a lot of pressure from the home players. A lot of credit should go to the home side for never letting their opponents time to rest or settle. The English were treating Albania with a lot of respect, and this is why they never allow them time on the ball. They’re also driven by a desire to score a number of goals in order to improve their goal difference and give them an advantage over Sweden and England. They’re aware that in a tight group of only four teams, it could go right down to being decided from the finest of margins.
England continue to be direct. They apply a lot of crosses from either side, but it is Pearce on the left hand side who is the most notable contributor. The home side come periously close to making it three when Robson again gets on the end of a ball into the area, this time after a combination of Lineker and defender Lekbello had flicked on Pearce’ cross. The home captain strikes it with his left foot, and it seems a certain goal only for Nallbani to shift weight back onto his right leg just in time to be able to get a strong palm to the ball and keep it out. It is a fine save by any ‘keeper’s standards. For a young lad making his international debut it is a superb stop. For ‘Robbo’ yet another miss.
It won’t take long, however, before the home side make it count from another cross, and yet again it is left-back Pearce providing the ball into the area, a bit of a high up-and-under, and as Webb on the far post gets in between defenders Jera and Gega to direct his cushioned header into the path of Lineker, the striker, with his back to the goal, can easily shield off Hodja. Lineker’s chest-down for the incoming Beardsley is a gift, and the deep-lying forward can not miss from only a few yards out, increasing the home advantage with his second of the afternoon through a side-footed finish.
If Albania thought they would finally have some respite with England easing up in their high pressure, they were wrong. The English players are extremely focused and disciplined, and with only a few moments of relaxing throughout the 90 minutes maintain the same level of aggression. The home side put on an impressive performance, and the only thing Albania can produce inside the English half after the break is a couple of crosses from the right hand side, with Noga trotting forward. One eventually reaches left-back Jera, who with his stronger right foot has a pop from distance – well over. The second, late in the game, sees Shilton make a flying catch, showing that at 39 he’s still very agile. Down the other end, England show what they’re about as they win the ball back no less than four times around the Albanian penalty area inside the same attack. Robson plays in Beardsley who in turn finds Lineker who side-foots home, but the English #9 is adjudged to have been in an offside position, so the ‘goal’ is disallowed.
21 year old Tottenham midfielder Gascoigne, originally from Tyneside in the North East, is given about half of the second period to show what he is about. He’s enjoyed a fine first season in the English capital with Spurs, where he plays alongside Waddle, another ‘Geordie’. The two combine shortly after ‘Gazza’ has made his introduction, and after the midfielder has traversed across the Albanian penalty area, he releases the ball for winger Waddle to have a go, only for him to finish with a wayward shot. The next time the ball finds its way to Waddle from Gascoigne, though, England are four goals ahead: yet another Pearce cross from the left, this time from his weaker right foot, reaches the head of the elegant Gascoigne on the far post, where he is free from the attention of both Jera and Hodja, and as the ball evades both Lekbello and Lineker on its path across the face of goal, Waddle, two yards out, can stoop down to head it over the line. Waddle may have scored, but it is the youngster who gets all the credit.
Gascoigne really makes his mark on the game after coming on, and as he is played in by Beardsley inside the visitors’ penalty area, he shows some fancy footwork to get away from no less than three visiting players: neither Gega nor Noga or Hodja are able to stop him from firing in a cross-cum-shot which however just misses Lineker right in front of goal. Jera at the far post is happy to prod the ball out for a right wing English corner.
There is time also for Mr Robson to introduce a debutant: defender Parker of London club QPR is brought on to replace Stevens at right back. This just adds even more pace to the defence line, even if at this point they have long since realized that Albania are no threat on the evening. Parker is seen combining with Webb on a couple of occasions, as the latter has been shifted out into a wide right role after the introduction of ‘Gazza’ for Rocastle, with the Spurs youngster appearing in a central role alongside or just ahead of Robson. Man Utd midfielder Robson will get another opportunity to add to his England tally as he gets on the end of a Waddle free-kick into the area: renowned for his headed goals in exactly this kind of positions, he can only direct this one just over Nallbani’s bar when he really ought to have made it 5-0. The fifth, however, will eventually belong to substitute Gascoigne, who receives the ball from Parker some 30 yards from goal towards the right hand side of the pitch. As he darts forward, he faces no opposition and can continue into the area unimpeded. With captain Hodja more or less turning his back on him, ‘Gazza’ proceeds to finish with a crisp left foot shot past the young goalkeeper. It is a qualifying match debut of some stature, even if he’s only had half of the second half. The home fans continue to laud those Liverpool supporters who had lost their lives in Sheffield through yet another rendition of “You’ll never walk alone” right at the end.
Bobby Robson will have been ever so pleased with his players’ attitude for this match, as they never allowed the Albanian visitors a moment’s peace. Their tactics of relentless high pressure paid off, and they created numerous opportunities to have won by an even greater margin. Albania could not quite cope with England’s physique, and were often second best in challenges. They were also unable to string many passes together, and so could not make any telling efforts on the English goal. England will have been satisfied by the margin of victory, even if their play had warranted possibly an even bigger win. They can now sit back and watch how Sweden and Poland do in Stockholm only a couple of weeks on.
1 Shilton 6.6
was never given the opportunity to show himself to the Wembley audience. Had one second half catch to make. The easiest of his 105 international performances?
2 Stevens 6.8
a sturdy full-back interpretation. Again given the chance to come forward, but not so prolific in the opposite half this time around. Rarely troubled by Millo defensively
(12 Parker –
comes on and is camped inside the Albanian half, keeping things simple. It hardly counted as an assist, but was the penultimate Englishman to touch the ball for Gascoigne’s goal
3 Pearce 7.2
another fine performance in an England shirt, and delievered some telling crosses, especially in the second half. Two of them yielded goals
4 Webb 7.0
went through a lot of hard work in midfield, but never a stranger to playing an intelligent pass. Moved out to the right hand side after the introduction of the first English substitute
5 Walker 6.9
never gave the Albanian forwards a moment’s peace. Did not need to showcase his speed
6 Butcher 7.0
marshalled his defence well and kept out any threat from the Albanian strikers. Even came forward in open play on a couple of occasions and delievered fine crosses. A new feature in the veteran’s play?
7 Robson 7.4
an all-round busy display in which he had so many attempts on goal it is a wonder how he came away without scoring. Battled and distributed well
8 Rocastle 6.7
by no means a weak performance, but not given the chance to shine like he had in the opposite fixture. He played to other strengths this time around, such as endeavour; he made a few interceptions.
(15 Gascoigne –
a wonderful cameo with a goal and an assist, and not least showcasing his immense technical ability on a couple of occasions, most notably when he sidestepped three Albanian defenders inside their box. One for both the present and the future)
9 Beardsley 7.5
two rather simple goals, and was not easily picked up in his deep attacking role. Tried to lay balls on for his team mates, but not always prolific in his passing play. Never short in commitment
10 Lineker 7.2
made countless runs off the ball as the sole striker, and finally ended his dry spell in the national team jersey with a simply taken early header. As always a strong runner down both channels, and drew defenders wide to open space for others
11 Waddle 7.7
the English playmaker with license to roam. Originally down the left flank but often coming inside and also contributing from the right hand side. Was fed the ball by his team mates, and tried to play in others through deft little passes. Movability a great strength; so difficult to pick up. Simple headed goal to show for his efforts
1 Nallbani 6.9
he has a fine debut at such a tender age, and could take pride in his performance after some fine stops. Perhaps partly at fault for the fourth goal, but other than that too often left exposed by his defenders
2 Zmijani 6.4
was moved into midfield after the opening half an hour. Is a better fit at right back, where he gets more time on the ball, but battled well, and did not need to hang his head in shame despite being heavily outnumbered by the home side. Also a bit of trouble with Waddle as a full-back
3 Bubeqi 5.5
difficult conditions to work in, but did not impose himself, and carried no threat whatsoever to the English defence on his debut. Should have showed more movement
4 Hodja 6.5
apart from paving way for Gascoigne for England’s fifth he kept his defence rather tight, and gave a decent performance with his composure at the heart of the visiting defence
5 Gega 6.2
out of sorts when marking Lineker early on, and was relieved of these duties shortly after the second goal. Better in a less defined marking capacity, and as ever tenacious in his play, yet found it difficult to cope with the relentless English waves of attack
6 Jera 6.5
clumsily headed into Lineker’s path for the first English goal, but other than that did ok defensively. Not over-worked as “his” man Waddle often came inside or across to the opposite side. Also seen across the halfway line on a couple of occasions, and had a second half shot from distance over Shilton’s goal
7 Shehu 6.0
does not get to utilize his pace, and his threat is reduced to a minimum by a hard-working home side. The less static of the two forwards, but struggles to make an impact against a solid English defence
8 Lekbello 6.6
plays like he’s got bags of experience despite his rather young age. Composed, well-disciplined, does a better job as a man-marker than Gega, and is an awkward opponent for Lineker. Quite stylish on the ball as well
9 Millo 6.3
chose not to try his luck down the left hand side, but came inside instead. Thus eliminating himself as a possible threat to Stevens/Parker. He’s comfortable on the ball, but was often put under a lot of pressure, and was never given time to provide a telling pass
10 Hasanpapa 5.6
overrun in midfield and got taken off early to save himself from further embarassment on his debut
(13 Noga 6.1
came on and did ok on his debut, even if he did struggle when being taken on by Waddle. Also seen putting in a couple of crosses, and despite his size seemed comfortable on the ball)
11 Demollari 6.8
easily the best outfield performer for the visitors, and scored a splendid first half goal which was very dubiously ruled out for offside. Less rattled by nerves than most of his team mates, is a bit of an enigma with the ball at his feet, and tries to bring others into play. Unfortunately, none of his comrades were at his level