It was supposed to be Romania’s moment to achieve a milestone in Lyon on Sunday, but they did not reckon with the unexpected intervention of frenzied, inspired underdogs Albania, who instead claimed their own place in the history books.
There was never going to be a bad atmosphere at Stade de Lyon with what seemed like most of Tirana in the stands, but they were – at least if Anghel Iordanescu had his wish – meant to go home disappointed.
The Romania coach, perhaps unwisely, issued an unprompted demand before the game for his players to emulate the country’s last national team to reach the knockout stages of a major tournament, the Euro 2000 side captained by the great Gheorghe Hagi.
They set about their mission proactively, albeit to an intimidating soundtrack of constant noise from Albania’s fanatical fans, who struck up a racket long before kick-off and kept it up throughout, even as Romania made the stronger start.
Did Iordanescu’s exhortations to his players to seize “the opportunity of a generation” and reach the round of 16 help or hinder the Romania team? The answer must be the latter after they bowed out without a win to their name.
A determined opening saw them control the first 20 minutes but they produced no clear chances.
And when Ermir Lenjani missed a sitter at the back post on the counter-attack it triggered a huge improvement in Albania’s play.
Romania’s initial nervous energy having dissipated, they struggled to regain a foothold in the game.
Things suddenly not going to plan, the enormity of the expectations weighing down on them became apparent and they were hanging on to hear the half-time whistle.
But it did not arrive in time to save them, Armando Sadiku heading home Albania’s first major tournament goal at the back post after Romania goalkeeper Ciprian Tatarusanu made a mess of the high, hanging cross from the right.
What proved to be the winner was the trigger for things to really heat up at Parc OL, where a red flare to match the shirts of the travelling horde lit up the top of the precipitous stands.
Down on the field Sadiku produced a fitting celebration after writing himself into the folklore of Albanian football, evading his ecstatic team-mates long enough to slide knees first toward the dugout, where he was mobbed by the first XI, substitutes and backroom staff.
The goal and Albania’s performances vindicated the bravery of coach Gianni De Biasi, who sensationally omitted captain Lorik Cana from the starting XI despite the talisman being available again after suspension, as well as leaving out high-profile star Taulant Xhaka.
It took Romania until the final 15 minutes to recover from the shock of finding themselves out-fought and out of control, the revival arriving too late to snatch what would have been a fruitless draw for both teams.
The famous win for Albania keeps them in contention to reach the round of 16 and was just reward for their extraordinary fans, who produced one of the best atmospheres at this, or indeed any, competition.
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