"Since the win against Belarus everyone in Albania thinks we can make it to the finals," says Albanian international goal-getter Hamdi Salihi, on the euphoria which has yet to subside after 26 March’s 1-0 UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying win in Tirana.
"It was a great feeling to get three points from a must-win game. It also fills me with pride to have scored the winning goal. It’s an important boost to our confidence, with a view to our next games," said the Rapid Wien front-man on a vital victory for the Kuq e zinjte, who occupy 50th spot in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
Currently in third place in a keenly contested Group D of EURO 2012 qualifying, the Red and Black have eight points from five matches so far, a tally which puts them ahead of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania.
"I knew it would be a very competitive group, there are three or four teams that could go through,” says Salihi, before casting a hopeful eye towards what would be Albania’s first appearance at the continental showpiece since Spain 1964. “The way the table is now only France look certain to qualify. If we make it too, the whole country will be celebrating."
Next step on the road to the finals in Poland and Ukraine for coach Josip Kuze’s charges is an away clash against the fancied Bosnians at the beginning of June. "Bosnia-Herzegovina will be very tough,” said Salihi, whose goals in the 1-0 wins over Luxembourg and Belarus banked his team six vital points. “However, beating Belarus has given us the self-belief we’ll need if we’re to overcome Bosnia’s strong individual players."
"When Otto Baric was the coach of Albania, he always used to compare me to Gerd Muller in the media. That’s where (my nickname of) ‘The Bomber’ comes from," explains the 27-year-old, who has been amongst the goals since starting out at his first club, Albania’s Vllaznia Shkoder, at the age of 18.
Following a brief stint in Greece, he returned home in time for a 2005/06 season when he scored 29 times for SK Tirane, figures which made him the top scorer in Albania’s Kategoria Superiore and earned a move to Austrian club SV Ried. ‘The Bomber’ repaid their investment with 32 Bundesliga goals between January 2007 and June 2009, a return that helped seal a switch to Rapid Wien – Austria’s record league-title winners.
Yet despite his impressive rise and remarkable composure in front of goal, the Albanian has not let it go to his head. "Wherever I’ve played, we’ve always worked together well as a team,” says the modest Salihi. “A striker can’t do much by himself.”
Measuring in at an imposing 6’1’, Salihi has already struck 17 times in league 32 games for Rapid this season, thus playing a big part in their current fifth-placed position and high hopes of European qualification.
"The team are doing a good job and I am certainly playing my part,” says the player himself. “We were in the group phase of the UEFA Europa League, we got to the semi-finals of the Austrian Cup and are within touching distance of the leading clubs in the league. Everyone is performing well and we are on the right track."
Just seven points lie between Rapid and table-toppers Sturm Graz, and the club are five points from a place in Europa League qualifying, a berth currently held by city rivals Austria. "My team-mates and I only ever look ahead," said the striker as the interview concluded, and with only four games of the campaign to go, starting with SV Mattersburg on Wednesday evening, can Salihi’s goals fire a decisive late charge?