Albania's Italian influence
© AFP

Having never qualified for a FIFA World Cup in any age category, Albania’s record at international level leaves plenty to be desired. That said, the south-eastern Europeans' recent form suggest that opponents who underestimate them will do so at their peril.

Last month Albania climbed seven places to sit 64th in the current FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. While that is still a long way off their highest position of 50th in April 2011, recent results point to a sustained improvement. Furthermore, Albania broke back into the continental top 30 after a lengthy absence.

Decisive duel
The upturn stems from some positive results in 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifying. Coach Giovanni De Biasi’s side are presently third in Group E following victories over Slovenia and Cyprus. Defeats to Iceland and table-toppers Switzerland (ten points) have left the Black and Reds trailing their next opponents Norway by just a single point.

On paper the upcoming match against the team ranked 29th in the world would appear to be a foregone conclusion, but the Scandinavians surprisingly lost 2-0 to Iceland at the start of the qualifying campaign. Previously the three-time FIFA World Cup participants have recorded a 2-1 victory and a 2-2 draw against Albania, although both fixtures took place in the 1990s. Since then football has developed considerably in the home of the 1946 Balkan Cup winners, the country’s only title to date.

Norway need only look at South Africa 2010 qualifying for further evidence of Albania's quality ahead of Friday's encounter in Oslo. Despite finishing second bottom in their group, Albania secured one victory and four draws, three of which came against top-class opponents in Portugal (0-0), Sweden (0-0) and Denmark (1-1). In light of the latter result, Albania’s game appears to be particularly awkward for Scandinavian opposition.

De Biasi debut
There can be no doubt that De Biasi’s role as national team coach has been crucial in the country’s progress. In December 2011 the 55-year-old replaced Josip Kuze, who was shown the door after two and half years in charge after failing to reach UEFA EURO 2012.

“De Biasi was the best option,” said Armand Duka, president of the Albanian Football Association at the coach’s unveiling. Although it is De Biasi’s first appointment with a national team, the strategist can call on over 20 years experience as a club coach. Among other achievements, he took Modena from the third division into Serie A in consecutive seasons. The former Inter Milan midfielder has also coached Spanish top-flight side Levante and was in charge of Udinese for three months in the 2009/10 season.

So far the Italian’s record with Albania is respectable, racking up four wins, four defeats and two draws from his first ten international fixtures.

Cana the key
De Biasi proved his tactical nous in his very first FIFA World Cup qualifying game against Cyprus last September. Two of his substitutes, top scorer Erjon Bogdani and Edgar Cani, netted to hand Albania a 3-1 victory.

Lazio midfielder Lorik Cana is captain and undisputed leader of the team, pulling the strings from his holding role in front of the defence. He is aided by experienced internationals such as AC Siena’s Bogdani, Ervin Bulku, Ansi Agolli, Andi Lila and Debatik Curri, who have each already accrued more than 30 caps for their country. Recent results have proved that the team has successfully absorbed the blow of losing the country’s most-capped player Altin Lala, who retired last year.  

The next two qualifying games against Norway, in Oslo on Friday 22 March and at home on 7 June, will go a long way to determining Albania’s fate. If they can live up to their reputation as the group’s bogey team, they could legitimately start dreaming of a maiden FIFA World Cup appearance.