Late goal ends Albania's resistance
Chorzów in southern Poland was the venue for the hosts’ opening qualification group game against Albania. Stadion Śląski was historically a frequently enough used venue for qualification matches, even if throughout the 80s they’d only played a total of three qualifiers here. The stadium appeared to be reasonably well populated, albeit far from full. The hosts would’ve been big favourites, and possibly were the crowd hoping not just for a win and two points, but also a few goals along the way. However, Albania would’ve had other plans. International football now late 80s carried few passengers, and the visitors were in Poland for more than just to make up the numbers. They harboured ideas and visions of their own. They must have realized that they were underdogs, but could they defy the odds and bring a result back home?
Poland team news
Poland came into their qualification opener having won four straight friendly matches since mid July, and national team coach Łazarek appeared to be confident despite the fact that the last World Cup had brought misery, revealing that it was time to leave behind some of the nation’s greats such as Boniek, Lato and Żmuda to name but a few. Replacing some truly great footballers in a ‘quick fix’ is never easy, but Łazarek would be hoping that Poland could kick off their new campaign with a win. They were without two Śląsk Wrocław players who had featured during the summer: central midfielder Waldemar Prusik, who had been captaining the side in three of those four summer wins, and attacking midfielder Ryszard Tarasiewicz. It is likely that Prusik was out with an injury, as he had been substituted on 56 minutes during the league game against Wisła Kraków (0-0) a week and a half earlier, and would not reappear until March. Their team included three players who were regularly playing for their Western European club sides: big sweeper Wojcicki at Homburg, where he had suffered relegation from the German top flight back in spring, central midfielder Matysik at Auxerre, who were a midtable side in the French first division, as well as veteran forward Smolarek, whose Feyenoord had, by their own standards, had a fairly mediocre 1987/88 season in Holland, finising sixth and outside of European qualification.
The Polish’ final preparation game was a 2-1 away win in East Germany the previous month, where nine of the players who started would also take to the pitch for kick-off against Albania. The only two Łazarek had to do without were defender Witold Bendkowski from ŁKS Łódź and said Tarasiewicz. Reigning domestic champions Górnik from Zabrze had three players in the starting eleven. And the Polish boss must have been delighted to have seasoned midfield man Matysik available to him again.
Albania team news
As for the visitors, their form coming into the game was more suspect: in fact, their only two fixtures so far in the calendar year had come at home to Cuba (fellow socialist state springs to mind) in August (0-0) and in last month’s 3-0 reverse away to Romania. National team manager Shyqyri Rreli had performed near miracles in the previous World Cup campaign, when Albania had taken points off both Poland and Belgium, who both qualified. He was back again after a three year absence and lead his side in both friendlies, only alternating his team in a few positions. So he must have had a relatively clear opinion of what his starting eleven in Chorzów would be, perhaps with two or at most three exceptions. One big miss would be striker Agustin Kola, who had been capped 18 times. Only captain Arbën Minga had won more caps for his country of those starting in Poland. Replacing Kola up front would be Ylli Shehu from Partizani of Tirana, a team which had finished mid table in the Albanian league the previous season. However, champions KS 17 Nëntori, also from the capital, had no fewer than six players in the starting eleven. No Albanian had yet been allowed to travel abroad to ply their trade.
Referee was Romanian Mircea Salomir, 43 years of age, who four and a half years earlier had been in Poland to officiate an Olympic qualifying match for the ’84 tournament in Los Angeles between the hosts and Denmark (0-0). However, running along one of the lines was a more prominent figure in Ioan Igna, whose career highlight so far will have been the 1986 World Cup quarter final between Brazil and France, where he was match referee.
The match was an evening kick-off, and dusk had begun to descend onto Stadion Śląski, where gales would contribute to perhaps making it a slightly awkward occasion for the players. The half moon would light the way along with the stadium floodlights.
|1 Józef Wandzik||25||Górnik Zabrze|
|2 Robert Warzycha||25||Górnik Zabrze|
|3 Roman Wójcicki||30||Homburg|
|4 Dariusz Wdowczyk||26||Legia Warszawa|
|5 Damian Łukasik||24||Lech Poznań|
|6 Waldemar Matysik||sub h-t||27||Auxerre|
|7 Krzysztof Warzycha||23||Ruch Chorzów|
|8 Jan Urban (c)||26||Górnik Zabrze|
|9 Jan Furtok||sub 73′||26||GKS Katowice|
|10 Andrzej Rudy||23||GKS Katowice|
|11 Włodzimierz Smolarek||31||Feyenoord|
|12 Janusz Jojko||28||GKS Katowice|
|13 Ryszard Komornicki||on 73′||29||Górnik Zabrze|
|14 Roman Kosecki||22||Legia Warszawa|
|15 Jacek Ziober||on h-t||22||ŁKS Łódź|
|16 Dariusz Kubicki||25||Legia Warszawa|
|1 Halim Mersini||27||KS 17 Nëntori|
|2 Krenar Alimehmeti||22||KS 17 Nëntori|
|3 Mirel Josa||25||KS 17 Nëntori|
|4 Skënder Hodja||28||KS 17 Nëntori|
|5 Skënder Gega||24||FK Partizani|
|6 Fatbardh Jera||28||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|7 Ylli Shehu||sub 70′||22||FK Partizani|
|8 Artur Lekbello||22||KS 17 Nëntori|
|9 Lefter Millo||22||FK Partizani|
|10 Arbën Minga (c)||29||KS 17 Nëntori|
|11 Sulejman Demollari||24||Dinamo Tirana|
|12 Sotir Shkurti||26||Besa Kavajë|
|13 Anesti Stoja||on 70′||25||KS 17 Nëntori|
|14 Hysen Zmijani||25||Vllaznia Shkodër|
|15 Ilir Kepa||22||Vllaznia Shkodër|
¹ Albania had only brought four subsitutes with them to Poland
As Albania sit deep and leave little space behind their defence, there is no deep sweeper on display, although it is Hodja’s task to be the last man of defence. Only Lekbello has clear man-marking instructions, as he is told to look after Furtok. Josa and Gega need to be alert to Polish runs from midfield, or, in Gega’s case, try and shut off supply for the mobile Smolarek. Neither full-back is very adventurous, but it does not belong in their game plan to throw caution to the wind and allow a lot of players forward. Demollari, Minga and Shehu, with the aid of Millo and in rare cases Gega, are left to deal with attacking, but there is not a lot of cohesion; most of their play inside the Polish half is left to individual imaginery. Shehu looks isolated at times, and has a difficult job against two big boys in the central Polish defence. Demollari is the player most likely to make runs from inside his own half, both with and without ball at his feet, whereas Millo is often an option out wide left.
Wójcicki has depth as a sweeper alright, and when the Polish feel confident they will allow Łukasik to join the build-up play in midfield, with him almost dropping into Matysik’s holding midfield role, and Matysik himself making forward runs. The Matysik role seems a bit wasted on Poland during the opening 45 minutes, before he is replaced by a traditional wide player for the start of the second half. Rudy is the player spreading passes from central midfield: preferably towards the right hand side and into the feet of K Warzycha, or even for the overlapping R Warzycha. Smolarek makes runs into both channels, trying to create openings for either K Warzycha down the right hand side or for captain Urban opposite, but they appear to be at their most creative when Rudy is allowed to pick a pass from high up in the pitch, which saw Furtok miss a guilt-edged opportunity to open the scoring. Other than that shots from distance appears their best bet, with both Wdowczyk and Rudy making sure Mersini had to work.
Albania seem to be out to defend the one point which they have from the moment of kick-off. They sit deep with their back line, and with Josa and Gega in holding midfield roles. Sole forward is Shehu, who will be accompanied by captain Minga when the visitors venture across the halfway line, and also Demollari will follow suit, and sometimes also Millo who is out wide left. However, with the wind behind them, the Polish are intent on causing some damage to the Albanians’ hopes of returning back home with a draw.
Poland line up in a more or less classic 4-4-2, with Wójcicki sitting very deep as sweeper, and with Łukasik in a more typical Vorstopper role ahead of him in central defence. The two full-backs don’t mind going forward, and in particular Wdowczyk on the left gets into a lot of crossing positions, also helped by the fact that Albania’s right back Alimehmeti, who is making his international bow, is having an average half and is struggling with his positioning. There is little hurt to the visitors from the left back’s crosses, though, apart from when Smolarek of all people gets up and heads just wide of Mersini’s left post midway through the half.
Matysik works as the stabilizer in the Polish midfield, and the ball is often shifted wide from his boot. The energetic Rudy is just ahead of him in a more attacking midfield capacity, possibly the role which otherwise would’ve been occupied by the absent Tarasiewicz. Rudy, a very blonde figure, appears to have some difficulties with the wind, seen on two occasions drifting crosses well behind Mersini’s goal. He also does have a couple of pops from distance, but even if the Polish number 10 is often in the thick of the action, he is not very succesful in what he is doing. The hosts seem more dangerous when captain Urban drives forward ball at feet; he is very capable of going past a man or even two. He will often seek to find the space between Alimehmeti at right back and Hodja as the free man in central defence, but Albania soon become aware of this threat and bring in Josa to shut off this corridor. Down the other flank the more forward-thinking of the two Warzychas (no relation), Krzysztof, tries to stretch left back Jera, but even Smolarek, the often wide-drifting striker, wants to have a word in these debates, and whereas one could have been forgiven for thinking that his presence would distract Jera’s mind, K Warzycha and Smolarek do not work well in tandem. There is little luck down the Polish right hand side.
Furtok is the more direct of the two Polish forwards, often followed by the calm figure of young Lekbello, who on 16 minutes, though, is fooled by a quick Furtok step and has to pull the striker down inside his own area. Surprisingly, the Romanian referee, who otherwise leaves a measured, controlled impression, never intended to fall for what he possibly saw as play acting from the Katowice forward. It appears to be Salomir’s only mistake during a first half which is equipped with decent enough pace, but which rarely is marred by niggling fouls. The referee does a good job in keeping the game flowing. The only bad foul worth mentioning is when Gega barges into Krzysztof Warzycha on 35 minutes, but to his credit Warzycha gets up right away and quickly runs away from the scene.
Poland could count themselves unfortunate not to be in front at half time. They had at least three opportunities which all could have yielded a goal, and goalkeeper Mersini, who throughout gave a good account of himself, had to be alert on a couple of occasions when the hosts tried to take advantage of the strong wind with shots from 30 and even 40 yards. Wdowczyk’s left peg got some airtime. At the other end, Shehu probably got the nearest to scoring, even if his rather tame effort from outside the box was comfortably dealt with by Wandzik, who has perhaps looked a bit rusty when having to deal with crosses. Could this be something that Albania could exploit during the final 45, especially playing with the wind? One could sense a slightly growing frustration towards the end of the half from the home support; two points is a must at home to the group’s expected whipping boys.
The Polish forwards Furtok and Smolarek set the second period in motion. Łazarek had made a change at half time: off went Matysik, on came lively winger Ziober. It appeared a very attacking switch, with Rudy now dropping slightly deeper, but far from acting as an outright holding midfielder, the role which Matysik had been occupying during the opening half. Ziober goes wide left, but he appears to be fairly deep, attempting to swing his crosses from halfway inside the Albanian half rather than trying to get past Alimehmeti to swing it over from the byline. So where does this leave captain Jan Urban? Well, he does not reach the expected level of presence from a player leading his side. He more or less seems to operate in the left hand corridor, though still 15 yards or so from the touchline. Is he static? Urban dos not appear to be the roaming kind of force that the hosts could’ve needed in order to break down a stubborn Albanian side.
Rreli has not brought any changes into the second half, neither through personnel nor tactics. He will have been more than pleased to keep his sheets clean, although they have rode their luck at times too. And Poland continue to set the pace, keeping the ball moving along the ground, trying to get round their opponents. With Hodja now lying rather deep in his sweeping role, there is not much room to take advantage of for the Polish, but Albania sit deep not only with their number 4: they’re being pushed back by a competent home side that is stroking the ball around confidently, yet unable to create the openings necessary to break the deadlock. And once the initial pace has subsided slightly, Albania even try to move forward themselves when the opportunity to go on the counter presents itself, and it is on one such occasion that Demollari really ought to have brought them the opening goal: Ten minutes into the second period he slices a finish just to the right of Wandzik’s goal with only the ‘keeper to beat. Poland suddenly look a little vulnerable, exposing themselves to breaks from the lowly visitors. The Albanian opportunity is, however, soon succeeded by a flurry of half chances from the home side: Another shot from Rudy, this time parried away from Mersini for a corner, a hopelessly tame effort from Ziober from distance, and then Krzysztof Warzycha’s cross finds Rudy on the edge of the 18 yard box: he scuffs his shot, the ball ends up instead with full-back Robert Warzycha, who fires well wide and over. And this is most of the second half encapsulated in two-three movements. Poland threaten, but they do not find the spark to burn down Albania’s squeaking walls.
Demollari has a go from distance around halfway into the half, and perhaps Łazarek starts to realize he needs to get his balance right again: a few minutes after he brings on holding midfielder Komornicki for Furtok. One can literally hear the audience thinking: “What the…? We need a goal, and we take off a forward for a defensive midfielder?” Łazarek knows what he is doing. He might have thought he could outnumber Albania by sending on another forward-minded player for Matysik at half time, but he admitted mistake by bringing on Komarnicki, thus eliminating any threat that a now tiring Albania might still have possessed. Ziober comes over to the right hand side, Smolarek wide left; they go 4-3-3. Rudy and Urban dictate the midfield, and the visitors are hardly seen across the halfway line after Komarnicki’s introduction. And then there’s the minor detail of the winning goal, when Krzysztof Warzycha, the sole centreforward at this point, strikes a low left-foot shot past Mersini’s reach after Ziober’s cross had been flicked into his path by Urban. A sweet assist by the otherwise rather anonymous captain.
Albania had no strength to counter Poland’s goal with. They had made a substitution ten minutes prior to the strike, when young midfielder Stoja had come on for forward Shehu, sending Demollari into a forward position. If anything, it made them poorer: Stoja was so weak in body challenges he carried no physical presence whatsoever. Minga had to enhance his defensive workrate even further, and Demollari became isolated. It was no less than Poland deserved, though. They were far the superior team, but had found breaking down such a deep opponent very difficult. At least they had got off to a winning start. For the visitors, it was just more of what they were used to. They might be in possession of a few players who can handle the rigours of international football well, but over all they are just too lightweight to carry much of a threat.
Poland were arguably the better side and could have won by a greater margin, but Albania did threaten on the break a couple of times, and as long as they managed to keep the home side out, they were always in with a chance to create an upset. They will have felt hard done by as the winning goal came so late in the game, and ‘keeper Mersini did well to save long range efforts from several players. Albania were no push-overs, they might have been second best for large spells, but also showed that they have players capable at international level. They will have been encouraged by this start to the qualifiers. Poland got the two points, and this will have been the most important thing for them on the night. However, they will have to raise their game in order to challenge England and Sweden for the top two berths.
1 Wandzik 6.4
did not appear confident at all in what little he had to do.
2 R Warzycha 6.9
willing and supportive for his namesake along the right hand attacking flank, not so much challenged defensively.
3 Wójcicki 6.7
looks deceptively slow, but keeps Shehu, quick and nimble, in check. Often takes out so much depth it looks odd to on-lookers, but this is the Polish way.
4 Wdowczyk 7.1
strong left foot, good overlapping runs down the left hand side, and well in control of his defensive flank.
5 Łukasik 6.8
a big presence in both boxes with his height, but is one-paced as long as the ball’s being kept on the deck. Not troubled.
6 Matysik 6.6
relatively inefficient, has a few misplaced passes, not so much in demand in a holding midfield role.
(15 Ziober 6.7
starts off wide left, moves across to the opposite side with about 15 minutes remaining, and causes more stir from the right, but hardly prolific.)
7 K Warzycha 7.0
takes his goal really well, is full of running, but has a tough time against a deep back four.
8 Urban 6.5
does like to drive forward ball at feet, but doesn’t link up very well with his team mates. One would have expected a more commanding performance from him.
9 Furtok 6.7
gets into a couple of scoring positions, but finishing touch lets him down.
(13 Komornicki –
sures up when coming on in much the same role which Matysik had had in the first period. Restores balance to the team.)
10 Rudy 6.9
very nimble and agile, but should know better to look for a pass rather than try a shot from any distance.
11 Smolarek 6.8
likes to wander out into both channels, not so much a direct goalthreat.
1 Mersini 7.3
a very assured and competent display throughout. Has a very safe pair of hands, and he commands his area well.
2 Alimehmeti 6.3
out of position from time to time, allowing Wdowczyk to whip crosses in from his side.
3 Josa 6.6
unfazed, yet inefficient.
4 Hodja 6.9
does a good job in keeping the Albanian defence together. Solid in the air, steady feet. Assists Mersini with every goalkick.
5 Gega 6.7
like fellow defensive midfielder Josa he is comfortable on the ball, but offers little other than a defensive shield in front of his stoppers.
6 Jera 6.6
some interesting tussles with K Warzycha, and seems pleased when the eventual match-winner elects to switch to the opposite side. Less directly involved with Ziober.
7 Shehu 6.3
the lone striker role is an uncharmed life, in particular when you are having to deal with tall central defenders such as the two of Poland. Shehu is fast, but has some way to go before he is tactically educated.
(13 Stoja –
comes on in central midfield, easily pushed off the ball on a couple of occasions)
8 Lekbello 6.8
a calm figure, gets Furtok frustrated as he follows him around and does not give the striker an inch.
9 Millo 6.2
offers little out wide left.
10 Minga 6.7
enjoys to drive forward with the ball, is also quite good in the air. Helps creating Albania’s biggest opportunity some ten minutes into the second half.
11 Demollari 6.7
full of running, should have scored when he is played through with Wandzik. Moved up front towards the end after Stoja’s introduction.