England will be hoping to continue their excellent momentum when they lock horns with Albania at Arena Kombetare on Sunday.
England travel to Tirana on Sunday, looking to start their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with two back to back wins. They are already coming on the back of an emphatic 5-0 victory over San Marino in their first group game, a result that helped them gain a valuable headstart in the Group I standings.
Gareth Southgate’s men have been pitted against some tough oppositions in the group, including Hungary, Poland and Albania, who welcome the Three Lions on their home turf this weekend. It is going to be a valuable game for both the teams, with England, in particular, looking to take advantage of Poland’s draw with Hungary.
As for Albania, they secured a narrow 1-0 win over minnows Andorra this midweek, meaning they are now level on points with England at the top. And while that is not expected to last long, the hosts will be well aware of the fact that salvaging at least a point against the European giants could put them in a great position ahead of their third game against San Marino, a game they are expected to win.
England, too, have a tough game against Poland coming up, so securing all three points in this fixture will be critical. And here, at The Hard Tackle, we will take a look at these two teams ahead of their crucial 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying stage affair this weekend.
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#Kombëtarja 🇦🇱 e #futbollit ka zhvilluar mbrëmjen e djeshme seancën e parë stërvitore në prag të ndeshjes me #Anglinë@England we welcome you in Tirana 🇦🇱🦅#FSHF #ForcaShqipëria pic.twitter.com/935X82xqHK
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Albania head coach Edoardo Reja prefers a three-man backline that should give his team numerical superiority in the middle of the park. Unlike against Andorra, though, the Italian may have to operate with two holding midfielders in Keidi Bare and Klaus Gjasula, with Ylber Ramadani serving as a potential alternative.
With the two midfielders likely to be tasked with the responsibility of screen the three central defenders in Marash Kumbulla, Berat Djimsiti and Ardian Ismajli, the onus will be on the wingback duo of Elseid Hysaj and Ermir Lenjani to play a key role in the build-up play.
The two are also likely to be vital in Albania’s second line of press, using their cover shadows to minimise pass options for the ball-carriers. In addition, both the players will have a license to move forward and whip in crosses into the box for the two central strikers in Sokol Cikalleshi and Rey Manaj.
Manaj, who plays for Barcelona B, is a more versatile forward, meaning he could potentially drop deep when necessary and partner Qazim Lazi in the number ten role. It could be integral to Albania’s creative firepower, while Ledian Memushaj serves as an alternative for the 24-year-old.
Probable Lineup (3-4-1-2): Berisha; Kumbulla, Djimsiti, Ismajli; Hysaj, Bare, Gjasula, Lenjani; Laci; Cikalleshi, Manaj
England were completely all over San Marino in their last game, but things could be much trickier against an Albania side that boast the services of some quality players. It should be reason enough for Gareth Southgate to deploy a stronger unit, with Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Luke Shaw all likely to return to the starting eleven.
Kane was given a full rest against San Marino, but will be hoping to feed off of the supply from the quality creative players like Raheem Sterling, Mason Mount, and Phil Foden, who could be given the nod ahead of Jesse Lingard after starting on the bench against San Marino in midweek.
The hard work continues 💪 pic.twitter.com/t6N1A5sPMS
— England (@England) March 26, 2021
Even James Ward-Prowse should retain his place in the team, knowing Albania are likely to defend in deep blocks. As such, the Southampton midfielder’s proficiency from set-pieces could emerge as one of England’s top sources of creativity. Ward-Prowse should also play a vital role in the second line of press alongside Declan Rice.
Southgate does have a host of quality alternatives in midfield, though, including Jude Bellingham, Kalvin Phillips and Foden while Ollie Watkins and Calvert-Lewin provides offensive reinforcements for the England manager.
Defensively, England are likely to call upon the Manchester United captain Maguire. The former Leicester City’s robust nature of play could be vital against an aggressive side like Albania. He should feature at the heart of the four-man backline alongside John Stones while Reece James and Luke Shaw are expected to occupy the full-back roles.
Probable Lineup (4-3-3): Pope; James, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Rice, Ward-Prowse, Mount; Foden, Kane, Sterling
- Albania and England last met back in 2001 – twice in the 2002 FIFA World Cup qualification campaign, with the Three Lions securing victory in both those games.
- England attempted a whopping 32 shots on goal in the recent game against San Marino, with an 85% share of possession and 15 shots on target. They also crossed the 900 pass barrier.
- England have scored at least four or more goals in nine of their last 15 matches – scattered between games against the Czech Republic, Kosovo and Montenegro.
- Since their defeat to world champions France in November 2019, Albania have lost just one game so far – a 1-0 loss to Lithuania in the UEFA Nations League.
- This will be Gareth Southgate’s 51st game as England manager. He has won 30 of his 50 games so far (D10 L10).
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With Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka injured, Southgate’s men are primarily relying on the services of Harry Kane to offer them that x-factor against a quality opponent like Albania.
The Tottenham forward, though, has added a new dimension to his game this season and can now operate in a deeper role. It should ideally pave the way for runners like Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden to make incisive runs in behind the backline, especially on a counter, with Kane being more than capable of providing accurate cross-field passes.
In a way, the 27-year-old could emerge as the creator-in-chief for this English side this weekend. Albania, though, will also have to be aware of his scoring prowess, especially from long range so closing him down could be key.
Albania 1-2 England
Albania are not an opponent to be taken lightly despite the gulf in quality between the two sides. Edoardo Reja’s men play an abrasive brand of football that could make it difficult for relatively new players like James Ward-Prowse, Declan Rice and Reece James to make an impact on the proceedings.
England, though, are likely to recall some of their star players, including Harry Kane back into the starting eleven. It gives them the obvious upper hand in this affair, especially if we consider the form of the midfield or creative players. As such, the Three Lions could emerge victorious, albeit by a small margin.