Albania made it four points in a week with a goalless draw with Republic of Ireland to follow up their 3-1 defeat of Russia. The hosts were even the better side for much of the game against a team who qualified for the FIFA World Cup finals, the visitors saved by a solid display from goalkeeper Shay Given.
Unsurprisingly, Albania were unchanged from their victory on Saturday. Meanwhile, Ireland only had one alteration from the lineup that started their 2-1 win in Georgia the same day - Robbie Keane returning, after a family bereavement, in place of Gary Doherty, who had headed Brian Kerr's team to late triumph in Tbilisi.
Goalkeepers kept busy
In front of a 20,000-capacity crowd, the home side were determined to prove that the beating of Russia was no one-off, as they took the game to their visitors from the start. Edvin Murati, who was to provide much of the thrust from midfield, forced Given to make a save in the second minute with a close-range effort. At the other end, Given's opposite number Fotaq Strakosha was then called into action to block Kevin Kilbane's diving header.
Altin Rraklli, leading the Albanian line with Brescia Calcio's Igli Tare, was the next to go close, as Given dived to stop his header from Klodian Duro's cross. The home side were now pushing forward at will, but Given and his defence held solid, while at the other end Keane was kept well shackled, his best chance, a header from a high Damien Duff cross, flying away from goal. Klodia Duro's clever chip forced Given to collect at full stretch, while both sides had a chance from long-range.
Ireland pushed further forward after the break, and Duff was unlucky in front of goal as Ardit Beqiri somehow robbed him of the ball as he attempted to shoot. However, as the hour mark approached Albania were twice desperately close to the lead. The first nearly came from the head of Irish right-back Stephen Carr, who cut out Ervin Skela's cross to Tare, only for the ball to only just go wide of the far post. Soon after, Rraklli let fly from 25 metres, but Given again was on hand and jumped to save.
Indeed, Albania clearly sensed their chance of victory. With 12 minutes left, Altin Lala's high cross forced Given to tip away again, and substitute Florian Myrtaj shot over from the follow-up. After this Ireland had two goals ruled out in the space of two minutes - first Doherty, on as substitute, was adjudged to have pushed his marker before shooting in, and then Gary Breen headed in, only to be given offside.
But it would have been harsh for Albania to be denied another point in a game in which they matched, and for long periods outplayed their visitors. They have now shown that an unlikely qualification may yet be possible.