The fans returned for the final match before EURO 2020, but despite their best efforts, Cymru could not produce the goal to head to the tournament on the back of a victory in what turned out to be a fiery friendly international in the capital.
Cymru 1-0 Albania
International Challenge Match
- Saturday, 5 June 2021
- Cardiff City Stadium
The result was always secondary to the benefit of giving certain players more minutes on the field, but a clean sheet and no injuries was a positive to take from a game of few clear chances.
With an experimental look to Rob Page's Cymru team selection, it was always likely to take some time for the side to adapt to the unfamiliar line-up, and there was little between the sides in the opening exchanges. In fact, it was Rey Manaj who had the first chance of the match for the visitors as his strike from the edge of the area narrowly cleared Wayne Hennessey's crossbar. It would prove to be one of the few opportunities for either team in a game of limited goalmouth action.
An altercation on the touchline on 37 minutes set the tone for the rest of the match as David Brooks and Manaj were both booked, and minutes later Aaron Ramsey came close to handing Cymru the lead, but he could not test goalkeeper Gentian Selmani from close range. Kieffer Moore was introduced at half-time to provide a different dynamic in attack, but it was Neco Williams who showed his ability in a forward position with a long-range effort after 55 minutes that went over the bar.
The introduction of Harry Wilson and Gareth Bale added more attacking impetus, while Hennessey remained untroubled at the other end of the field. Williams again tried his luck from range on 73 minutes, but was denied by Selmani in what was Cymru's best chance. Tempers spilled over in the final exchanges and a string of bookings followed, but the score remained the same. The players departed with a lap of honour, and now head off to Baku for the opening game of the tournament against Switzerland.
MATCH AT A GLANCE
- The Red Wall returned with 6,500 fans in attendance and in great voice.
- Neco Williams available and started despite his red card against France.
- Albania almost took the lead through Rey Manaj in the opening half.
- Williams had two good chances from long-range after the restart.
- Despite ending the game on top, Cymru could not turn their late pressure into goals.
Cymru XI: Hennessey (GK), N.Williams, B.Davies (c) (Rodon 61), Allen (Smith 61), T.Roberts (Bale 71), Ramsey (Wilson 61), Ampadu (Moore 46), Norrington-Davies, Brooks (J.Williams 76), Mepham, Levitt.
Subs: Ward (GK), A.Davies (GK), Gunter, C.Roberts, Cabango, Colwill.
Changes were always expected ahead of this final friendly before EURO 2020 as manager Rob Page remained focused on ensuring that as many of his squad would get as many minutes on the pitch as possible before the opening group game. Ben Davies captained the side on his return to the starting line-up while Aaron Ramsey was also handed a place in the team. The forward positions were occupied by Tyler Roberts and David Brooks as Page used the opportunity to try a different approach in attack.
Albania XI: Selmani (GK), Lenjani (Trashi 61), Çekiçi (Kallaku 76), Djimsiti, Bare (Laci 76), Manaj (Sulejmanov 77), Kumbulla, Doka (Veseli 46), Ismajli, Balaj (Cikalleshi 60), Abrashi (c).
Subs: Sherri (GK), Harizaj (GK), Hoxhallari, Seferi, Ajeti, Ramadani.
Albania claimed six points from a possible nine as their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign began with victories over Andorra and San Marino back in March. However, manager Edoardo Reja made a number of changes to his side from the last match against San Marino, with only Ermir Lenjani, Berat Djimsiti, Keidi Bare and Rey Manaj keeping their places in the starting line-up.
Alternative options – Having different options is a luxury of the strength-in-depth that now exists within this Cymru squad. An experimental starting line-up highlighted the passing range of Dylan Levitt as he switched the ball from right to left with ease in the opening half, and he complimented this with his connecting play in the second period. Meanwhile, the work ethic ingrained in Tyler Roberts by Leeds United manager Marcelo Bielsa in the Premier League this season was more than evident in his tireless display. His energy and work rate could certainly be a valuable option at certain times during the finals.
A new position for Neco – Following confirmation that he would not have to serve a suspension following his red card against France, the Liverpool youngster clearly relished his opportunity to impress. Playing further forward, he found himself in space to try two long-range efforts on goal. With his first shot sailing narrowly wide of the post, he repeated the effort later in the game and forced a fine save from the Albanian goalkeeper. Statistically one the most effective attacking players for Cymru on the day, his versatility could see him assigned a more attacking role in the team if required.
The fans are back – It was in November 2019 that the Red Wall last watched Cymru at home or away, and the fortunate 6,500 in attendance made up for the restricted numbers as they got behind their team from the national anthem through to the final whistle. Famous international nights at Cardiff City Stadium are remembered for the atmosphere as much as the result and the performance, and while this friendly may not have been a classic, restoring the bond between the players and the fans was an emotional experience that will not be forgotten anytime soon.
This match was always likely to be more memorable for events off the field than for what happened on it as the Red Wall made their long-awaited return to the Cardiff City Stadium. Although restricted in numbers and complying with the strict safety protocols, the return of the impromptu anthem on 85 minutes remained everyone just what sort of atmosphere has been missing over the last year. On the field, the expected experimentation was always likely to affect the rhythm of the team, but coming through two pre-tournament friendlies without injury and offering minutes on the pitch to players that needed them will serve the team well in the coming weeks. A lap of honour at the final whistle restored a connection between the players and the fans, and they will need to be 'together, stronger' when the tournament begins next weekend.