Albania’s Dusseldorf day out sees Spanish victory but a proud nation steal the show

June 24 – Once again they came in their thousands, this time perhaps more in hope than expectation, turning the Dusseldorf Arena into a deafening cauldron of noise.

If this was to be Albania’s final appearance at Euro 2024, their massed ranks of fans – occupying all but a corner section of the 47,000-capacity stadium – were determined to give their side a rousing sendoff.

Albania were, of course, rank outsiders as they on took the might of already-qualified Spain.

With one point from their opening two group games, they needed to pull off the mother of all upsets to stand a realistic chance of staying in the competition. A task made even harder by the two-game ban meted out to striker Mirlind Daku for using a megaphone to join ­supporters in nationalist chants after the draw with Croatia.

Don’t forget Spain had won all previous eight encounters between the sides, scoring 31 goals in the process, as well as reaching the last 16 in Germany with a game to spare.  No contest, then…

Or was there a glimmer of hope for the outsiders for whom simply getting here in the first place constituted a huge achievement?

Ferran Torres put Spain ahead

That glimmer was because of the Spanish starting eleven. No-one was the least surprised when changes made. But was 10 potentially risky?

Coach Luis de la Fuente obviously didn’t want to risk any injuries or suspensions but the team he put out contained only Atymeric Laporte from the win over defending champions Italy, though Rodri was suspended.

Even a reserve Spanish team should of course be enough, man for man, to dispatch a country ranked 66 in the world. Their quality runs deep.

But in the stands it was an entirely different story where the red and yellows tried to find their voices were drowned out by the red and blacks.

It seemed like the whole of the football-mad Balkan nation had travelled to watch their plucky team. They roared their heroes out on to the pitch, wolf-whistled anything and everything to do with Spain, discourteously including during their national anthem, and on a hot and humid night hoped for the best.

The underdogs certainly started on the front foot, running around as though their lives depended on the result. Every Albania tackle and throw-in was cheered to the rafters, every foul against them roundly booed.

They had the first corner of the game at the end of the ground where their fans, illegally, had let off a number of thick fog flares which eventually disappeared into the evening sky.

But it didn’t take long for Spain, captained by 38-year-old Jesús Navas, a World Cup winner in 2010, to stamp their authority on the game. Mikel Merino’s effort at the back post was cleared to safety after an excellent save. Then Laporte crossed from deep for Joselu, but the Real Madrid man headed just over.

Spain’s second string come first

But Spain’s next attack proved decisive. As they flexed their muscles once again, Dani Olmo’s slide rule pass through the middle of the pitch found Fernan Torres whose swept it home. It silenced the Albanian hoardes.

Spain’s possession-based game continued to put them in cruise control even though there were no more goals. They seemed to have a spare man every time they attacked. If the Eagles were to get back in the match, they needed to be a lot braver and get more from their talisman, Inter Milan’s Kristjan Asllani.

Torres planted another header over for Spain while Merino missed a golden chance for 2-0. Albania hadn’t managed a single worthwhile attempt on goal until just before the interval when Asllani at last got on the ball, forcing David Raya into a fine stop.

Albania needed more chances like that but two second-half goals, the least they required to progress, was always a tall order against the 2012 champions who play through the lines so effectively at this tournament.

Joselu’s instinctive volley almost gave Spain clear daylight and in his frustration at what he perceived to be too many decisions going against his team, Albania coach Sylvinho was booked for dissent.

With their country’s hopes fading, the Albanian fans raised the decibel level again, the more so  after the introduction of Armando Broja, surprisingly left out of the starting line-up, with just over half an hour to go.

In their best spell of the game, the underdogs went for broke.  Broja so nearly converted a quick freekick as Raya saved again. Then Amir Abrashi let fly with shot that skimmed past the post.

Spain resorted to what they do best to keep a resurgent Albania out – hold on to the football. As they moved to the top of the group with maximum points, perhaps their only worry in the knockout stage will be not doing enough with all their possession.

As for Albania, although their fans haven’t exactly covered themselves in glory by becoming involved in too many nationalistic shenanigans, their raucous support has been terrific. Apart from one young supporter that is who decided, with 20 minutes left last night, to chance his luck by running on to the pitch before being ensnared by stewards.

And whilst they now bow out of Euro 2024, their team do so with immense pride. That they finished in the ascendency against Spain with a strong penalty appeal and another Broja chance and excellent Raya save said everything about their spirit.

They certainly gave the Group of Death their best shot.

Contact the writer of this story at moc.l1721239487labto1721239487ofdlr1721239487owedi1721239487sni@w1721239487ahsra1721239487w.wer1721239487dna1721239487