Swiss win 'derby', but Albania prove their worth, says Andrew Warshaw
Schar gobbles up early gift but Albanians impress with their spirit
REPORTING FROM LENS
(Fabian Schar 5)
Poor Albania. They wait all this time to reach a major Finals, then hand their first opponents a couple of presents.
These two countries are more than 1,000km apart, yet, yesterday's Euro 2016 clash was arguably the first derby of the tournament - thanks to the unusual ethnic links between the sides.
Ten members of Albania's squad were either born in Switzerland or grew up there, with seven of them playing for the Swiss at Under-21 level before switching allegiance.
Conversely, six Swiss squad players have family links to Albania or Kosovo - including both Arsenal-bound Granit Xhaka and his brother Taulant who made history yesterday by becoming the first siblings to line up on opposite sides at the Euros.
Both were born in Basel to ethnic Kosovan parents but, while Granit opted to play for the senior Swiss side, Taulant, 18 months older, chose Albania.
Getting this far was a remarkable achievement for a team drawn in the same group as Portugal, Denmark and Serbia.
Albania went into yesterday's tie with nothing to lose, marshalled at the back by the veteran Lorik Cana who captained Sunderland back in 2009-10.
The Eagles may even have fancied their chances against a Swiss side who finished second in their qualifying group behind England, but who have never made it out of the group stage at the Euros in contrast to a decent World Cup record.
With the entire stadium bathed in red and positively shaking with expectation, Albanian fans who poured in from across the European diaspora made up well over half the capacity 35,000 crowd.
But the game was only five minutes old when Albania goalkeeper Etrit Berisha, who plays for Lazio, needlessly rushed out and flapped at Xherdan Shaqiri's corner.
Fabian Schar couldn't believe his luck as he powered a header into an empty net. That was present No. 1.
Albania had only 28 shots in their entire qualifying campaign, but now they had to chase the game.
Schar and Cana both went in the book for a couple of tasty challenges before the outsiders started to grow in belief and came so close to levelling on 30 minutes.
Elseid Hysaj's 35-metre pass split the Swiss defence, but Armando Sadiku could only find Yann Sommer's outstretched legs.
Just when Gianni de Biasi's team were enjoying their best spell, events took a decisive turn for the worse as Cana was penalised for handball just outside the area and dismissed for a second yellow. That was present No. 2.
Genoa midfielder Blerim Dzemaili smashed the resultant free-kick against the post and Berisha redeemed himself with a string of fine saves from wasteful Haris Seferovic efforts early in the second half.
How Albania came close to pulling off a famous result, first when Sadiku hit the side-netting, then when substitute Shkelzen Gashi, who could have become an overnight national hero, was put clean through in the dying stages, only for Sommer to stand tall and spare Switzerland's blushes.
Albania may not have made it here it but for a key ruling that went their way after their away qualifier against the Serbs saw ethnic tensions explode.
The so-called Battle of Belgrade in Oct, 2014, was 0-0 when a drone carrying a pro-Albanian flag was flown over the pitch and caught by a Serbian defender.
In the chaos that ensued, Serb fans invaded the pitch and the match was abandoned.
Uefa initially awarded the tie to Serbia only for the decision to be overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, with Albania handed three points instead.
The rest is history.
The unfashionable side were hardly humiliated yesterday, as many had expected.
They wanted to show they could play football at this level, and, in the end, Albania's frustration was summed up by the sight of a fuming Taulant Xhaka throwing down a water bottle in disgust after being substituted.
How he and his team did the country proud and they at least live to fight another day.