Soccer-Albania relish facing big guns, eye Croatia next

Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group B - Italy v Albania - Dortmund BVB Stadion, Dortmund, Germany - June 15, 2024 Albania players pose for a team group photo before the match REUTERS/Leon Kuegeler

HAMBURG, Germany (Reuters) - Far from lamenting their luck in a fearsome Euro 2024 group, unfancied Albania are savouring the opportunity to take on Europe's top sides with Croatia next up on Wednesday.

"It's a true joy to be here. We’re playing against the best teams and learning from them," said their coach Sylvinho, declaring his team 100% fit for the game in Hamburg.

"These teams that have players from Manchester City, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, they have a very high technical level, it’s a great thing to play against these teams. But we will never give up. The players are ready."

Roared on by some of the biggest and most passionate support at the tournament, the Albanians stunned reigning European champions Italy with a goal after 23 seconds in their opening Group B match.

Italy then scored twice, but Albania agonisingly missed a chance to equalise in the dying minutes.

"We came close to a draw. Perhaps tomorrow we might win, who knows?" said Silvinho, who will be relieved to have winger Jasir Asani available against Croatia after an ankle problem.

With Croatia having also lost their opener, against Spain, both teams desperately need points at the Volksparkstadion, either to progress in their group's top two or as one of the four best third-placed teams.

It is a first ever meeting between the Balkan nations.

Despite Croatia's 3-0 defeat by Spain, they created chances and possess world-class talent in the likes of midfielder Luka Modric, Sylvinho noted.

"They have technical skills, great passing, very high quality," he said.

"It's a great pleasure to play against these players ... But we have good players too, our captain has won the Europa League. We have a good mix of experienced and younger players."

Team captain Berat Djimsiti, 31, was integral to Atalanta’s Europa League triumph and successful Serie A campaign which earned them a Champions League spot.

"Croatia is one of the favourites," he said alongside his coach at a news conference, adding that hopefully his experience would help the younger players.

"The matches are very difficult and demanding when you are facing champions, big teams. Any minor issue or mistake can result in a goal. We need to address that in the next match in order to put Croatia into a difficult situation."

(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Ed Osmond)

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