There should be very little to link Alex McLeish and Christian Panucci, one being a no-frills flash of red hair from Barrhead and the other being a classy Italian defender who won it all with AC Milan and Real Madrid, and yet their paths have crossed more than once.
Of course it was Panucci’s late header that ended Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2008 in McLeish’s first spell as national team boss. Now a manager himself, Panucci could effectively end Scotland’s hopes of qualifying for Euro 2020, at least through the Nations League, by leading Albania to victory tomorrow night.
Pressure ahead of the clash in Shkodër isn’t exclusive to McLeish, though. Panucci finds himself in an eerily similar situation, tasked with leading Albania through the Nations League to their second successive European Championships. Should the Italian fail, it’s likely he will pay with his job, just like McLeish. The fate of the two men is, not for the first time, intertwined.
Where there is a difference is in what McLeish and Panucci currently have to work with. While Scotland at least knows where its next batch of hopefuls is coming from – a group of youngsters that includes Andy Robertson, Kieran Tierney, John McGinn, John Souttar, Scott McKenna and Scott McTominay – Albania are not in that position.
It was hoped that qualification for Euro 2016, the first time Albania had made it to a major tournament, would provide a springboard for the country to emulate some of their more illustrious Balkan neighbours who have made themselves regular fixtures at World Cups and European Championships in recent years. This, however, turned out to be a false dawn.
From a highest-ever Fifa ranking of 11 in August 2015, Albania have now fallen to 60. Panucci has so far failed to find a core of players to build his team around, with experienced campaigners like Lorik Cana retiring from international duty following Euro 2016 and the next generation struggling to force a way through.
Some even doubt whether there is a next generation. Albania, and the whole Balkan region, is widely regarded as the next footballing goldmine. Just last month, Juventus opened an academy in the capital city of Tirana, with more and more elite clubs sending scouts to the country. And yet these green shoots have yet to poke through into the national team.
There’s long-time left-back and captain Ansi Agolli, who some Celtic fans might recall from their side’s Champions League qualifiers against Qarabag back in 2015, as well as Rangers winger Eros Grezda. Kastriot Dermaku could feature against Scotland, despite being called up by Kosovo in August. The defender has since switched his footballing allegiance to Albania, serving as an illustration of the complex political divides that still exist between the Balkan nations to this day.
There are youngsters coming through, with a healthy number of players under 25 called up to face Scotland and Israel, but by and large they have yet to prove themselves as good enough for international level.
Rey Manaj is a 21-year-old striker, on loan at Albacete from Inter Milan, who has promise but just one goal in seven caps for Albania. Egzon Binaku, a 23-year-old Swedish-born defender who has impressed for Malmo this year, is another for the future, but in the present doubts persist. Stephen O’Donnell had the better of him down the right wing in September.
Elseid Hysaj, the 24-year-old right back who has made himself a first team figure for Napoli over the past three seasons, and Taulant Xhaka, Basel midfielder and elder brother of Granit Xhaka, are two exceptions. Panucci knows this and hasn’t held back in his withering evaluation of his team, bemoaning a “deaf” group of players not responding to his instructions as well as injuries to key figures like striker Armando Sadiku and winger Odise Roshi.
Scotland’s performance and 2-0 win against Albania at Hampden Park back in September is the only real rebuttal McLeish has had to offer his critics so far. For Panucci, though, it was very much a nadir. He questioned the attitude of his players after that defeat, claiming many in his dressing room were more interested in their Instagram accounts than turning around the national team’s fortunes.
Albania’s away form over 2018 has been stronger than their form at home, but this weekend they need a reversal of that trend. In fact, they need a reversal of their fortunes as a whole.
When Panucci and McLeish stand side by side on the touchline at Loro Boriçi Stadium on Saturday night, they will do so with plenty in common. What divides them by full-time could have quite a ripple effect, particularly for Albania whose future as a footballing nation is at a tipping point.