The European champions Greece were brought down to earth in stunning fashion by Albania who kicked off their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign with a shock 2-1 success in Tirana. Two goals in the opening eleven minutes proved enough for Albania as they hung on for three unexpected Group 2 points.
Greece fell behind after only two minutes when Edvin Murati powered in a header for the home side, and Albania were on course for a shock victory when Ardian Aliaj sent a free-kick beyond Antonis Nikopolidis just nine minutes later. Two months to the day that Greece pulled off their great surprise against Portugal in the UEFA EURO 2004™ final in Lisbon, Otto Rehhagel's side were suffering a shock of their own.
Nikos Dabizas started in the heart of the Greece defence in place of the influential Traianos Dellas, but the visiting side lacked the organisation and cohesion that was the hallmark of their success in Portugal and it was no surprise when Rehhagal made changes during the first half.
On came Stelios Giannakopoulos and Vassilios Tsiartas and the pair combined to pull one goal back on 38 minutes, Tsiartas crossing for the Bolton Wanderers FC midfield player to head in.
With confidence restored, Greece pressed for an equaliser after the break, but under Hans-Peter Briegel Albania have become unaccustomed to losing at home. They were unbeaten during qualifying for EURO 2004™ and recorded victories over Russia and Georgia in Tirana as well as drawing with Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland.
Strakosha holds firm
And a resolute defensive display after the break kept that record intact. Georgios Karagounis came close with a short that flashed narrowly wide, but the Albania goalkeeper Foto Strakosha was rarely troubled.
Indeed Albania might have extended their lead, squandering two good chances as well as having a penalty claim turned down. In the final minute, Greece had one last chance to salvage a point, but Strakosha produced a fine save to deny Karagounis' powerful shot.
Albania now travel to Georgia on Wednesday with confidence high, while a disheartened Rehhagal will look to lift his side ahead of a testing home meeting with Turkey. "We suffered the two goals very early in the match and we could not climb back," Rehhagal said. "The only thing we have to do is make up for this defeat against Turkey."
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