This was no Xhaka-on-Xhaka Battle for the House Keys, nor, probably, was it ever really going to be. It was, as it turned out, possibly a Battle for the Second Spot in Group A. Most people though were probably expecting a much more one-sided affair than they got.
There was a lot made before the match of the amount of players in the two squads who could have represented the other side. The Xhaka brothers – far less exciting in reality on the pitch than their names are to English ears – made history by being the first brothers to face each other on the pitch in the European Championships. This was not the story of this game.
The story of this match was one of how the gods, the Fates, conspire to keep mortals in their place. Albania, in their first major tournament, seemed certain to be deemed ‘plucky’. They were not ‘plucky’. They were good.
Unfortunately, they conceded before they had the chance to prove it. Albanian boos and whistles as the first Swiss player came close to the stands to take a corner were greeted, as if in response, by Switzerland scoring. The keeper came grasping for the ball as if it were the sun he wished to cradle in his arms. Alas, it flew past him as he landed, burnt, on the turf. He should have kept further back.
On the ball, though, Albania were good, finding space between the Swiss lines well. Sadika, their centre-forward, dropped deep to receive vertical passes through Switzerland’s midfield, laying them off quickly so that a further pass could be played, Switzerland’s positioning now disrupted. Quite often attacks, for both sides, were disrupted by players slipping under the grey and rainy Lens sky. It made you remember that France isn’t all that far away from England.
Off the ball, Albania’s midfield line was high, and Switzerland struggled to find a way through them. In fairness to Switzerland, it wasn’t solely that Albania were better than them. Switzerland were also worse than Albania. These are not the same thing.
Switzerland, who reached the last 16 in the 2014 World Cup, were not as large a problem for Albania as might have been imagined. Albania, 5th out of 6 in their 2014 World Cup qualifying group, were a lot more competitive than might have been imagined.
The Fates looked down and frowned, and tweaked their threads to alter the footballing tapestry.
Gods need to maintain an image of fairness, and players on both teams slipped and slid on the Lens surface for the entire match. But it was a cruelty that Lorik Cana, Albania centre-back, should slip while he and a Swiss striker chased a long ball. Without his intervention, Switzerland would have a 1 on 1 and a great chance to go 2-0 up. Due to the tweaked tapestry beneath his feet, his desperate intervention was an arm, and he duly received his second yellow card of the game after just 36 minutes.
You would think that Switzerland would have an easy time of it with an extra man, but it wasn’t quite the case. Albania, going to a 5-3-1 at first (the “3-1” creating a diamond) continued to frustrate them, and Switzerland’s slightly unco-ordinated attempts to press were often fairly easily bypassed.
The second half was a quieter one. Albania struggled to create chances, save for a couple of attempts by Sadika or winger Lenjani, but these were generally not from good angles. Switzerland found their way through Albania easier, but still not as easy as they would have liked. They started to coast after about 70 minutes. It seemed a wise strategy against ten men who were playing 6-2-1 when defending, and in a summer tournament where games come every few days.
It seemed less of a wise strategy in the dying minutes, when Albanian substitute Kace threaded a fantastic pass through the centre of the Swiss defence to Gashi (also a sub, on for Sadika). Gashi, 1 on 1 with Yann Sommer – was terrible. The chance easily saved, the Swiss and the Fates breathed again, their carelessness unpunished.
I hope Albania get out of the groups. I hope they take boots with longer studs to their next match too.
FT: Albania 0 – Switzerland 1