England play Kosovo for the first time on Tuesday as both sides attempt to take another step towards qualifying for next summer’s European Championship. Here’s the lowdown on the opposition.
Kosovo are ranked below Tajikistan, so this should be easy, right?
England will be expected to maintain their 100 per cent start to Group A, yes, but they would be unwise to take it for granted given the upsets Kosovo have already caused in this campaign.
They have caught Europe’s attention with a 15-match unbeaten run and currently sit second behind England and there is a growing belief that a national team only fully recognised by governing bodies in 2016 could reach a first major international tournament in Euro 2020.
Wait. Kosovo are on a 15-game unbeaten run?
Yes, and it hasn’t all been friendlies against Burkina Faso and Madagascar – although admittedly wins over those two nations came early in the sequence.
Since then they have topped a Nations League group that included Azerbaijan, Malta and the Faroe Islands and gone from strength to strength in Euro 2020 qualifying.
It is all a far cry from their only previous qualifying campaign, for last year’s World Cup, in which they took just one point from 10 games.
So, how are they doing in Euro 2020 qualifying?
Kosovo have continued to go from strength to strength. Having begun Euro 2020 qualifying with two draws, they registered a first ever competitive win in June, against Bulgaria.
On Saturday they made it back-to-back victories, beating the Czech Republic to overtake them in Group A and take this small but fiercely proud nation further into uncharted territory.
Who plays for them that I might have heard of?
The most recognisable players to English audiences may be the handful of Kosovans who play in the Championship. They include Huddersfield’s Florent Hadergjonaj, Swansea’s Bersant Celina, Sheffield Wednesday’s Atdhe Nuhiu and Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Arijanet Muric.
But Kosovo’s most high-profile star is Lazio midfielder Valon Berisha, while leading scorer Arber Zeneli – currently out injured – plays in France for Reims.
Aren’t Shaqiri and Xhaka Kosovan? Why aren’t they playing?
Yes, Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka are among a number of ethnic Kosovo Albanians who represent adopted nations – Switzerland, in this case – as a result of the diaspora caused by conflict in the former Yugoslavia.
Players already capped elsewhere were given a chance to realign with Kosovo but Shaqiri and Xhaka declined.
Who’s the coach I’ve seen ranting in a viral video clip?
That will be Bernard Challandes, the 68-year-old Swiss credited with turning Kosovo into a credible side and who remains unbeaten since taking charge in March last year.
He likes his team to aggressively press from the front, as he conveyed in said viral clip, so expect England’s defenders to be given little time on the ball at St Mary’s.
Main image credit: Getty