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Euro 2016 Team Guide: Albania's Eagles ready to soar on major tournament debut

19:42 SAST 2016/06/03
Lorik Cana Albania - Cropped
Their road to the tournament in France may have been controversial for the Southeastern European side but they will be looking to shine on their maiden finals appearance

Coach: Gianni De Biasi

Key player: Lorik Cana

Qualifying form: W4, L2, D2

Top scorers in qualifying: Armando Sadiku, Mergim Mavraj, Berat Djimsiti, Ermir Lenjani, Ledian Memushaj, Shkelzen Gashi, Bekim Balaj (all one)

Reaching a first major tournament was never likely to be simple for Albania, but no-one would have predicted a key battle on their road to Euro 2016 being fought in a courtroom.

Not only has the Balkan country's national team never appeared at a European Championship or World Cup, they have never even come close.

But they will be proudly among those represented in France, going up against Switzerland, Romania and the hosts, after taking second spot in qualifying Group I - finishing seven points behind Portugal and two ahead of Denmark.

Crucial to finishing in front of Morten Olsen's men was the three points awarded to Albania by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) following the abandonment of a match away to Serbia in October 2014.

In an incident that made headlines around the world, the game was called off when supporters in Belgrade rioted, the crowd trouble having been sparked by a drone flown over the pitch carrying a flag displaying the slogan 'Greater Albania', in reference to tensions between the two countries over the region of Kosovo.

UEFA initially awarded the points to the home team, only for CAS to overturn that and hand the win to Albania, whose players fled the field to avoid missiles thrown from the stands at Partizan Stadium.

Those dramatic scenes, perhaps unfairly, will be prominent in the minds of neutrals when the finals begin, meaning the onus is on Albania's players to make a name for themselves for the right reasons.

They showed what they are capable of in their first match of qualifying - a stunning Portugal 1-0 in Aveiro.

But while there is plenty of confidence to be drawn from edging a continental powerhouse like Portugal, even by only a single strike, goals may well be an issue for the Eagles in France.

Bekim Balaj grabbed the winner against the 2012 semi-finalists and while he did not hit the back of the net again in the subsequent seven matches, that was still enough to make him one of his country's joint top scorers, with no Albania player netting more than once.

It was at the other end of the pitch where they really excelled, conceding only five times, thanks in no small part to Lorik Cana.

The former Sunderland man, now with Nantes but formerly of Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Galatasaray and Lazio, is Albania's captain and most-capped player.

Able to play at centre-back and in central midfield, the 32-year-old will be crucial to the underdogs' hopes.

Cana will seek assistance from Lazio goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, who is protected by an organised rearguard, with Andi Lila (PAS Giannina) and Ansi Agolli (Qarabag), among the national team's other stalwarts.

Head coach Gianni De Biasi, a former Brescia and Palermo midfielder, is the man who masterminded their qualification miracle and it remains to be seen whether he can repeat the feat by guiding them into the knockout stages.