Can Kosovo walk out of St Mary’s unbeaten?
Background image: DommoMC, CC BY-SA 3.0
You’d be forgiven for not knowing the finer details about Kosovo. With the country’s official status granted only 11 years ago, there’s been precious little time to understand the nation or truly appreciate its culturally rich history.
Kosovan football fans will insist however you recognise their national team hasn't lost a competitive game since October 2017. With another international break underway, this author asks, can Kosovo frustrate the Czech Republic and England to walk away from St Mary's with their record intact?
November 2017 witnessed the pendulum swing in Kosovo’s favour. Their record coming into the game against Latvia was among the poorest in the international form table. Nine defeats on the bounce. Needless to say, it wasn’t a fruitful World Cup qualification campaign.
Said night, that encounter with Latvia was more than the mere friendly billed as. It proved Kosovo's triumphant incubation. Losing 3-2 on 59 minutes, it seemed a historic tenth straight defeat was on the cards. Then, Elbasan Rashani levelled the scoreline four minutes from time. The momentum gained, the ball fell to Besar Halimi who scored his first-ever national goal to earn a victory.
Fast forward to now, Kosovo have dramatically improved. The wider world will be exposed to them as they navigate games against the Czech Republic then England.
Players to Watch
Kosovo have a few talents to keep an eye on. Arber Zeneli is the country’s all-time top scorer, amassing seven goals. The striker expected to surpass that record in time is Vedat Muriqi. During five years in Turkey, the 25-year-old netted 51 times prior to this season. Now at Fenerbache, he's bagged two goals in the campaign's first three games. At present, his international tally stands at five. Should he bring his domestic form to the Dardanians, he could add a few more before the week's out.
Kosovo's other notable player is Samir Ukjani. The goalkeeper's 25 matches make him the country's most-capped. At 31, he has time to set the bar higher for future generations to aim at. Ukjani also earned 20 Albania caps before defecting.
Vs. Czech Republic
Prior to the excitement of heading to England, Kosovo host the Czech Republic on Saturday. Jaroslav Silhavy's side bring their own record to Pristina. Not quite as glamorous as the Dardanians' 14 matches unbeaten, none of their last 20 games have ended in a draw. Precisely, 11 wins, nine losses.
The Czech legends such as Petr Cech, Tomas Rosicky and Milan Baros have over time been replaced with Matej Vydra, Patrik Schick and Ladislav Krejci. The current lot just aren't the same. This team enter their next clash knowing the FIFA rankings don't paint the full picture. They occupy 43rd in the world. Kosovo are 120th, despite six months ago avoiding defeat to Denmark, the 13th best national side.
Comparing match data from Kosovo and Czech Republic's respective UEFA Nations League campaigns, the teams share a similar philosophy. Both are content to concede possession and make calculated forward plays. This game could easily cancel out into a draw.
Midfielders Bersant Celina and Bernard Berisha can make the difference for Kosovo. The two have been effective with goals, assists before. They may be needed again here to break the deadlock.
Kosovo take on England at St Mary's on Tuesday night. Facing last year's World Cup semi-finalists is no doubt their sternest test yet. Madagascar, Bulgaria as well as the Czech Republic pale in comparison to playing football’s motherland.
The Three Lions have an affinity for qualification campaigns. They've rarely lost games at that stage in the modern era. The Dardanians' unbeaten streak can quickly evaporate without the correct tactical set-up. They've used a 4-2-3-1 formation in their last six matches. Bernard Challandes is unlikely to change.
Southgate, on the other hand, may experiment due to the quick turnaround. This could work in Kosovo's favour. They can take advantage of unversed players who will be performing under the pressure which comes with representing an expectant nation.