Report from Our Man in Albania
Wales lost 1-0 in Elbasan, in a throwback to the dark old days when a trip behind the Iron Curtain meant battling against not only a partisan home crowd, but the vagaries of Eastern European refereeing decisions.
Having completely controlled the first hour, Ryan Giggs’ charges never recovered from a penalty, as they slumped to a shock defeat against a side ranked 60th in the world.
It was a result which might yet save Christian Panucci his job as Albanian coach, aftre eight defeats in his previous 11 games.
“No one cares that we are missing 6-7 players. We believe that we are Germany or Brazil. Twelve players have not been called upon because they have not played for their club,” reflected the former Italian international in the build up to the game.
The jubilant scenes at the final whistle saw home fans invade the pitch to celebrate their historic win with their heroes.
A lot has happened since Wales last visited Albania back in 1995. Then it was a country beset by economic problems in the aftermath of the harshest of communist regimes led by the late Enver Hoxha.
His policy of isolationism during his 40-year rule had even seen Albania refuse to participate in international competition for almost a decade.
On the football pitch, it was Wales who had their own problems as a disastrous Euro’96 qualification campaign had resulted in the dismissal of manager Mike Smith.
With Bobby Gould newly appointed to the hot seat, the 1-1 draw in Tirana saw Robbie Savage, Gareth Taylor and John Robinson all handed their international debuts.
Fast forward 23 years and Albania is now a country embracing its freedom with Tirana as warm and welcoming a capital city as you will find anywhere in the world.
As for the Welsh football team, Ryan Giggs has now completed his first calendar year in charge, during which he has introduced a plethora of young faces into the line-up, Anderlecht defender James Lawrence and Manchester City starlet Rabbi Matondo being the latest to get their chance – along with a start for ex-Reds keeper Danny Ward.
However, it was one of the old guard that was firmly in the spotlight in Elbasan as Chris Gunter earned his 93rd cap, breaking Neville Southall’s long-standing record in the process.
Indeed, Giggs had played alongside the Reading full-back when he made his debut at Wrexham in 2007. How both must have wished they could have reflected on the 29-year-old’s achievement in the warm glow of victory.
With both sides content to keep possession, the game sprang to life on five minutes when Lawrence found Daniel James wide on the left. The Swansea City winger sped past his marker and crossed for Sam Vokes to head narrowly over at the far post.
David Brooks then saw a snap shot deflected behind for a corner before Harry Wilson had Etrit Belisha scrambling across his goal with a free-kick that flew low past the post.
With Wales dominant in possession, the young duo then combined well midway through the first-half as Brooks saw a flick header fly the wrong side of the upright.
Brooks' pace was a constant threat and Andi Lila was booked for a cynical challenge on the Bournemouth player.
Taulant Xhaka could then count himself extremely fortunate to only see a yellow card, as he appeared to head butt Brooks, just three days after his captain Mergim Mavraj had seen red for a similar offence against Scotland.
The half closed with a fine passing moving involving the industrious Joe Allen, Brooks and Wilson, which ended with Sam Vokes having a shot saved by the legs of Belisha.
The Burnley striker should have given Wales the lead at the start of the second stanza, but he failed to convert Tom Lockyer’s effort at the far post, only knocking the ball into the arms of the home keeper.
Gunter than marked his record-breaking achievement with a booking for a fairly trivial offence.
The Macedonian referee further stunned the sparse home crowd by pointing to the spot, as Xhaka went down under an innocuous challenge from Wilson, Bekim Balaj duly converting on the hour mark. The young Liverpool man putting his hands on the arms of the attacker, who then went to ground.
Gareth Bale was immediately introduced for Brooks as Giggs looked to get Wales back on the front foot. On 66 minutes, the Madrid forward was involved in the move which saw Wilson brought down by Migjen Basha only for Dejan Jakimovski to wave away the visitors’ frantic appeals – it was a clear foul, but not one spotted by the match official.
Albania should have added a second with 15 minutes left but substitute Ledian Memushaj could only fire over from Mytro Uzuni’s fine pull back.
Bale was himself booked in the closing stages, before he had the last chance of the game, a free kick from 22-yards that clipped the wall, signalling the end of the match as the referee allowed not more time.
There were plenty of Wrexham supporters in the Elbasan Arena and we wish them all a safe journey home, ahead of Saturday’s National League clash with Leyton Orient.
Wales: Ward, Roberts (Freeman 78), Lockyer, J Lawrence, Gunter, King, Allen (Ramsey), Wilson, Brooks (Bale 59), James (Woodburn 56), Vokes (Matondo 78).
Subs: Hennessey, Williams, Thomas, Roberts, Lawrence, Davies.
Wales: King (43), Gunter (52), Wilson (58), Bale (84)