Debutants Albania must wait to learn if they will progress to the UEFA EURO 2016 knockout phase after leapfrogging Group A rivals Romania into third with a historic 1-0 victory – their first at a major finals.
Both sides realistically needed a win in Lyon to keep their chances alive, and it was Romania who began with the greater urgency as they chased a potential runners-up spot. Albania, meanwhile, could only hope for a last-16 berth as one of the four best third-placed teams, but that prospect looked slim as Romania let fly with a series of attempts from distance.
Bogdan Stancu did better, meeting a dropping ball with a superb volley, and although Etrit Berisha was equal to it, the Albania No1’s team-mates appeared decidedly nervy in front of him.
That was all about to change. And, curiously enough, it was an offside opportunity that switched the momentum, Ermir Lenjani having his blushes spared by a raised flag after blazing over from right in front of goal.
Having come so close, Albania’s players immediately grew in confidence and their opponents struggled to adapt. It was no great shock, then, when Armando Sadiku headed in their first-ever major tournament goal close to half-time, connecting with Ledian Memushaj’s cross as goalkeeper Ciprian Tătăruşanu came out to claim.
The emotional celebrations told their own story, but Albania still had a job to do after the break. Save for a scare when substitute Florin Andone fired against the crossbar, they did it – and the best may be yet to come.
Man of the match: Arlind Ajeti (Albania)
Surprisingly left in the starting line-up despite the availability of Lorik Cana following the captain’s suspension, Ajeti was rewarded for his excellent performance against France. How he repaid coach Gianni De Biasi’s faith, contributing to a sturdy defensive display alongside fellow centre-back Mërgim Mavraj, producing four clearances, three interceptions, two tackles and a vital block.
Albania earn respect
The tournament’s expansion to 24 teams was always intended to give Europe’s smaller nations a chance to shine, and Albania have shown that the so-called minnows can hold their own. So unfortunate not to claim a point in their opening two games, this time their tireless and valiant efforts paid dividends. Cheered on by a sea of red shirts in the stands, the players and their fans have been a welcome presence in France and can be rightly proud – whatever happens next.
Landmark to forget for Iordănescu
Anghel Iordănescu waved the statistic aside yesterday, but this was not how he would have wanted to commemorate his 100th match in the Romania dugout, either as head or assistant coach. The man who took the Tricolorii to the 1994 FIFA World Cup quarter-finals will be crestfallen after finishing bottom of Group A with a solitary point on the board, though in mitigation he has not had the likes of Gheorghe Hagi at his disposal in his third spell. There is much work to be done.