Klaus Gjasula strikes late after own goal to snatch Albania draw with Croatia

<span>Klaus Gjasula (left) leads Albania’s wild celebrations after cancelling out his own goal with a late equaliser.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images</span>
Klaus Gjasula (left) leads Albania’s wild celebrations after cancelling out his own goal with a late equaliser.Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

When Klaus Gjasula came off the bench after 72 minutes for Qazim Laci, the player who had put Albania ahead, what was he expecting? To sit at the back of midfield, to be a damp blanket stifling the game, to preserve the Albanian lead? Maybe he thought he would make a couple of tackles, be a useful breakwater in front of the defensive line. Maybe he dreamed of a heroic block he could tell people about for years but for him, a quiet game would have been a good game. As it turned out, his game could hardly have been noisier.

Gjasula, now at Darmstadt having played for a series of Germany’s less storied names, had been on the pitch for two minutes when Andrej Kramaric squeezed a shot through Elseid Hysaj’s legs to equalise.


Then Luka Sucic’s shot from Ante Budimir’s cutback was blocked by Berat Djimsiti and cannoned off Gjasula into the net. He had been on the pitch four minutes, during which time Croatia had scored twice and he had got one of them.

Lesser figures would have quailed. Just get out of there. Draw no more attention to yourself. Whatever you do, don’t risk missing a golden chance to equalise. But Gjasula had one more moment of involvement and it was vital. Once Croatia had gone ahead, Albania found a second wind. Arber Hoxha had a drive from 20 yards saved. Mirlind Daku, seemingly startled by just how much time he had been afforded in the Croatia box, had an effort blocked.

Other sides might have panicked, might have just slung the ball into the penalty area and hoped for the best. But Albania remained calm. They built up patiently, then Hoxha laid in Mario Mitaj who crossed low. Gjasula ran on to it.

In 28 previous games for Albania he had never scored. He is 34 and has been playing professional football for 16 years. He has scored only 19 league goals. He is 6ft 4in. Deftness, precision in front of goal, that’s not really his thing. But this was his time. He didn’t snatch at the chance but swept it calmly past Dominik Livakovic. At which point nobody was calm any more. Albania’s bench and players and fans celebrated wildly, and deserved to do so.

“The game was crazy,” said the Albania manager, Sylvinho, “The pace of the game was difficult for him but at the end of the game, it was a present for everyone that he scored.”

In Albania’s only previous major tournament, Euro 2016, they did win a game, but whatever happens against Spain in their final game here, they will leave this tournament having made more of an impression than they did in France.

“It was an amazing sensation,” Sylvinho said. “I’m going to remember this game all my life. We are proud and the nation should be proud about the performance. We did well and I’m really proud of my players, they played so hard to represent our people.”

Croatia, meanwhile, will almost certainly go through if they beat Italy in their final game. They may have lost 3-0 to Spain and been broadly outplayed in the first half by a younger, sharper Albania, but they still have a chance. They have a capacity to hang in games and tournaments until their talent eventually blossoms. “We can’t,” as Kramaric said, “do anything the easy way.”

It might be easier, though, if their starting midfield did not have a combined age of 99. Just as Spain had been able to find space between the midfield and the defensive line, so did Albania, taking the lead after 11 minutes as Jasir Asani, given an extraordinary amount of time, crossed for Laci to nod under Livakovic. It could have been worse for Croatia but Kristjan Asllani and Rey Manaj snatched at presentable chances before half-time.

“They were two completely different halves,” said the Croatia coach, Zlatko Dalic. “The first half was again bad, we played badly. We conceded and then we couldn’t do anything. We were very slow. We made a lot of errors, we lost many balls. In the second half we played a lot better, were a lot more decisive.”

Marcelo Brozovic was one of two Croatians replaced at half-time, the shape became more of a 4-2-3-1 and Dalic urged his team to play quicker. It worked. Albania slowly wilted as the pressure mounted. It seemed like classic Croatia. It seemed that, once again, they had found a way. But this was Gjasula’s day and he wasn’t to be denied.