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 Lorik Cana’s red card was a real shame for both Albania and Taulant, who was forced to play a much more withdrawn role from that point on.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 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.