Those of a Scottish disposition can easily find reasons for caution or comfort in the country facing up to Albania for the first time. If they want to be fearful, they can consider that, unlike their hosts at Hampden for tomorrow’s Nations League encounter, the eastern Europeans know what it is like to compete in a major finals in more recent times than 20 years ago.
Courtesy of their participation in Euro 2016, they are still fresh from such an achievement – their first appearance in any such finals capped with a 1-0 win over Romania. Against that, there were only two survivors from that side in the team on Friday night that saw the Albanian begin their Nations League bid with a 1-0 victory over Israel.
The changes in the past two years include at management level with Italian Christian Panucci – who famously scored as Italy beat Scotland to end their World Cup qualifying hopes in 2007 – taking over from countryman Gianni De Biasi.
Panucci’s 14 months in charge haven’t engendered great optimism he can repeat the feat of 2016. With only three wins from his nine games in charge, Albania have slipped to 58 in the world rankings after losing at home to the likes of Kosovo and Norway. The 3-0 defeat at home to neighbours and bitter rivals Kosovo in May led to angry fan demonstrations over Panucci’s stewardship.
To put Albania’s ranking in context, Scotland are currently 40th. It is worth noting, however, that in their last qualifying campaign, they only finished behind Spain and Italy. Not that they posted wins over other than Macedonia, Liechtenstein and Israel in their section, though.
Panucci can draw on seven Serie A-based players for a side he has sought to make more expansive than the team he inherited. It was defensive solidity, stuffiness indeed, that had been the greatest asset in making history with their finals appearance in France. In reality, though, no one from Albania places great store in other than the three dependables within their ranks: Napoli right-back Elseid Hysaj, Lazio keeper Thomas Strakosha and Taulant Xhaka, the Basel midfielder who is the younger brother of Arsenal’s Swiss international Granit. The 27-year-old chose to declare for the country of his parents’ birth while his siblings represented the country in which they were born and raised.
Intrigue within the Albanian line-up was expected to be offered up by the appearance of winger Eros Grezda, bought by Rangers from Osijek for £2m at the end of the window. However, the player, who has been out injured since the tail end of last season, was returned to Glasgow after it became apparent he was not ready for a return to action.
Panucci, currently involved in a £100,000 legal action with the former Albanian president Bujar Nishani over being decried as a “charlatan” in the aftermath of the Kosovo thumping, believes the morale-boosting victory over Israel the other night is evidence he has enough within his ranks to finish above Scotland in their Nations League group. The 4-0 mauling McLeish’s men suffered at the hands of Belgium on the same evening does not figure in the Italian’s assessment.
“We have a strong squad. I have already stated the last few games were a time for experimenting and we did that. We were back to our best team against Israel and we deserved to win,” the 45-year-old, pictured left, said.
“I don’t understand the criticism I received. Italy lost seven goals in two friendlies and didn’t get the abuse I got. It was no big deal because the important thing was to do well in the Nations League. Now we go to Glasgow and this is a very important game for us. If we can get a win at Hampden we are in a very strong position.
“Scotland lost heavily to Belgium, but I don’t read too much into that because anyone could lose like that to the Belgians. I have always said our target is to win the group and I believe we have the players to do that. We face a Scotland side who will provide us with a big test because they will be aggressive and in our faces right from kick off. But I am confident we have a good enough squad to get a win.”