After the draw was completed for Group I of the UEFA Euro 2016 qualifiers, Portugal were installed as favourites to win the group with Denmark and Serbia expected to compete for second and third position while Albania and Armenia were generally dismissed as no-hopers and easy prey for the stronger teams. Albania had never previously qualified for a major tournament and had usually finished last or next to last in previous qualifying groups apart from when finishing fifth of seven in both their respective 2006 and 2008 World Cup and Euro ventures. However, the first set of matches in Group I during September 2014 were to prove that the Albanians should be taken seriously in what ultimately proved to an unexpected outcome to that group.
A second half goal by Bekim Balaj enabled Albania to begin their Euro 2016 campaign with a victory in Portugal against all the odds and there then followed a 1-1 home draw with Denmark. Even more drama was to follow in Albania’s next match when violent reaction to a drone with a political banner enforced the abandonment of their controversial fixture with bitter rivals Serbia in Belgrade. The Serbs were eventually deemed to be at fault and Albania were awarded the match via a 3-0 scoreline.
Albania remained unbeaten in their first five matches before succumbing to home defeats against Portugal and Serbia. They finally secured their passage to France by winning 3-0 in Armenia on Sunday evening with head coach Gianni De Biasi being hailed as a god in Albania for his efforts in securing qualification. De Biasi had worked for several clubs in Italy besides spending a year managing Spanish team Levante before accepting the role as national head coach in 2011. Yet even he must not have believed that this success would be possible for a national team previously rated as mere minnows.
Goalkeeping heroics from Etrit Berisha had allowed the Albanians to claim an earlier 0-0 draw in Denmark which may have ultimately proved to be the decisive result in the result as the Danes now need to qualify for the Euro 2016 tournament via the playoffs with Serbia failing to fulfill their potential, even allowing for a three point deduction.
Denmark had won this tournament in 1992 but reputations are not necessarily respected in European competitions despite an increase in participating teams for the French summer tournament. For example, Greece were surprise victors in 2004 but finished bottom of Group F in the 2016 qualifiers.
During the summer, Slovakia will join Albania by featuring in their first ever major football tournament and with Albania, in particular, avoiding defeat and not conceding a goal in each of the their three completed away matches in Group I, there arises the possibility of another shock winner eventually emerging in France.
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