LENS, France — On an emotionally charged afternoon at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis, a goal from centre-back Fabian Schar gave Switzerland a 1-0 victory over Albania to put them level with France at the top of Group A after one game.
Here are three key talking points to come out of an intriguing contest.
It took just 13 seconds for Granit and Taulant Xhaka to come face-to-face, the former dispossessing the latter in what would be his first victory of the evening. The fraternal face-off had been much hyped but neither player appeared in the slightest bit overawed. By the end of the first half, both Xhakas had certainly been their respective sides’ most influential player.
There are plenty of similarities between the two. Both are tenacious and energetic, harrying and pressing at every opportunity with an all-action approach. At club level with Basel, Taulant is consigned to playing full-back but for the national team he thrives in the middle of the park. Lorik Cana’s red card was a real shame for both Albania and Taulant, who was forced to play a much more withdrawn role from that point on.
The difference comes when the ball is at their feet, with Granit far more graceful in possession, at home with the ball and rarely wasteful. He certainly showed glimpses to excite Arsenal fans, his 99 completed passes the highest of any player on the pitch and the three chances he created also the best return. Had teammate Haris Seferovic not forgotten how to finish – Breel Embolo surely must take the misfiring forward’s place against Romania – Granit would already be heading the assist chart at Euro 2016.
Understandably the Xakas’ mother did her utmost to remain neutral in Lens, the television cameras picking up on her sporting a T-shirt adorned with a half-Albanian, half-Swiss flag. It was in sharp contrast to the fiercely partisan Albanian crowd, who loudly booed Granit’s every touch. And he was not alone, every Swiss player with Albanian heritage on the pitch – Xherdan Shaqiri, Valon Behrami, Blerim Dzemaili and Adir Mehmedi – reminded of their ‘defection’ whenever they touched the ball.
The mother to the Xhaka brothers spotted in the crowd today in a great t-shirt showing her support for her sonspic.twitter.com/XWzjENb3Mg— Sport360° (@Sport360) June 11, 2016
THE EAGLE HAS LANDED
Four hours before kick-off a hefty crowd of Albanians had already congregated outside the gates of the Stade Bollaert-Delelis. Over a speaker, Eurythmics hit Sweet Dreams blared out with a sentiment that certainly struck a chord with supporters of the Shqiponjat (Eagles). Despite their status as tournament minnows – at 42nd in the world they are the lowest ranked team at Euro 2016 – the Albanian contingent in Lens were determined to have a day to remember.
Their team may not have delivered the result on the pitch but off it, Albania made a real impression. With a capacity of 38,223 this is one of the smallest stadiums at the tournament. Fortunately its design means that the noise created is kept firmly inside. And boy was there a lot of noise. From start to finish, in delight and disappointment, the Albanian fans roared.
Napoli right-back Elseid Hysaj, who took the Albania armband following Cana’s dismissal, recognised after the game that a “very special” atmosphere was created by “amazing supporters who have been there throughout this very important journey for us.” Left-back Ansi Agolli also took the opportunity to thank the Albanian faithful, saying: “There are no words to describe the emotions that the fans made us feel today.”
It was a tale of two centre-backs in Lens, with Fabian Schar claiming an early goal and Lorik Cana heading for an early bath. Only five minutes were on the clock when Schar rose to head home Shaqiri’s corner, the Basel man then helping Switzerland successfully defend that lead for the next 85. Schar appears on the surface a composed presence in the Swiss defence, though this probably has more to do with his erratic partner Johan Djourou, whose decision making in this game was laughable on several occasions.
The Swiss have an interesting defensive set-up, with a flexible formation that is 4-4-2 in defence and 3-5-2 in attack, the full-backs encouraged to push on early as Valon Behrami drops back into a Libero role. Franz Beckebauer he ain’t, but Behrami does manage to look assured when bringing the ball forward.
At the opposite end of the pitch it was a day to forget for Albania skipper Cana. Although there was a hint of a shirt pull from Swiss striker Seferovic, the former Sunderland and Lazio defender unquestionably handled while lying on the floor, leaving referee Carlos Velasco Barballo little choice but to dismiss him. The red card saw Albania become the fourth team after England (1968), Netherlands (1976) and Bulgaria (1996) to have a player sent off on their European Championship debut.
Cana’s experience will be missed in Wednesday’s game against France, though Gianni de Biasi’s side were actually excellent in his absence. That was down to an impressive work-rate from Albania’s outfield players and a series of heroics from goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, who thwarted Switzerland time and again. Having been criticised for making mistakes in pre-tournament friendlies and then erring for Schar’s goal with an unconvincing flap, Berisha’s subsequent performance will have provided a much-needed confidence boost.
Following Switzerland’s victory over Albania in Euro 2016, the key figures on show have been having their say on the evening’s action.
Sport360 rounds-up the best of the post-match reaction.
We made the right first step. It wasn’t so easy, we were lucky in the end. But it was a deserved victory.
The first goal was a shock for us. We retreated and speculated too much. The second half was a bit better, but we should improve.
– SWITZERLAND MANAGER VLADIMIR PETKOVIC
I think we made it difficult for ourselves. We could have made it easier for ourselves if we had taken our opportunities earlier. We also have to say a big thank you to Yann [Sommer], because he made one or two really good saves. I think the main thing is that we were able to get the win.
It was a really good start, but afterwards we got a bit too passive. There were also a certain amount of nerves at the end. We definitely wanted to keep a clean sheet and because of that we didn’t take too many risks at the end.
It hasn’t been always easy for me recently, I’ve come in for a lot of criticism and am of course happy that I could help the team in such a way.
– SWITZERLAND GOALSCORER FABIAN SCHAR
It was a fantastic game, I believe we played well, although we were unfortunate to have one of our players (Lorik Cana) sent off. I think we played well and created many chances to score, so we should focus on the positives.
We knew ahead of time that Switzerland are a strong team, a possible contender for the European Championship, so we had predicted that it would be a tough match. They pressured a lot and after the first 15 minutes, we lost our momentum and lost sight of our style of play, so we struggled a bit, as did they.
We have to take more care with the finer details and continue attacking as we did because we had some clear chances to win the match or draw.
– ALBANIAN DEFENDER ELSEID HYSAJ
I would like to say something personal, as after the match against Ukraine it was a bit tough for me to come back. But with the help of the coach and my teammates I think I played well and had a relatively good game today.
I think we fought right to the very end, and for about 60 minutes we were playing with 10 men. I think this was what we expected, we fought hard for the whole game, we didn’t give them many chances.
We will fight right to the very end, we will do our best right the way through, because that’s why we came here, to show our values and to defend our colours.
– ALBANIAN MIDFIELDER ANSI AGOLLI
Wales are playing at their first major tournament since the World Cup in 1958 and Bale carries a great deal of his nation’s hopes on his shoulders.
The Real Madrid man was given a free, roaming role from attacking midfield by manager Chris Coleman and he sent his nation into raptures by handing them the lead.
Bale struck in the tenth minute with a typical dipping free-kick as Wales made the early running despite needing a goal-line clearance from Ben Davies to deny Marek Hamsik an opener for Slovakia.
Most of the big players have failed to deliver in the opening matches but not Bale.
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