Etrit Berisha – Albania
Despite a relatively easy group on paper, some in France may have hoped to avoid Pot 4’s Albania; the hosts have failed to beat them in two friendlies since qualification for Euro 2016 began, most recently losing 1-0 in June 2015. Goalkeeper for both that win and a 1-1 draw in late 2014 was Etrit Berisha. A popular player among fans, Berisha has made the Albanian number one position his own since usurping predecessor Samir Ujkani, now of Kosovo.
Having been in and out of Lazio’s line-up since joining the Italians in 2013, Berisha was nevertheless awarded Serie A’s Foreign Goalkeeper of the Year in his debut season. With his peak years to come, the 27-year old will be looking to put in a strong showing for his county in order to solidify his club career.
Albania qualified with an unusual combination of solidity in their defence and controversy. While too much has already been said on the latter involving an abandoned match in Serbia, it is the former that primarily got Albania’s un-fancied squad to Euro 2016. Scoring few but conceding fewer has been the principle of Italian (of course) coach Giovanni De Biasi. With a recent record against the formidable hosts in their favour, and beatable rivals for second place in Romania and Switzerland, Berisha & Co. could be eyeing an upset of Greek proportions.
Kyle Lafferty – Northern Ireland
While Will Grigg enjoys new-found viral fame, and a song in his honour at the high end of the charts, it is easy to overlook the Wigan striker’s complete lack of involvement in helping the Northern Irish get to Euro 2016. Journeyman Kyle Lafferty instead holds the honour of being his country’s top scorer in qualifying, with seven goals in nine appearances.
One of those players who probably wishes he could don his national kit for club matches, Lafferty’s club career is not of a stand-out quality like many stars heading into France. Just five goals in 26 appearances at domestic level for three clubs since 2014, Lafferty is not a conventionally reliable striker. Currently surplus to requirements at Norwich City, previous spells in Scotland, Switzerland, Italy and Turkey are unusually adventurous for modern British-born players.
However, this qualifying campaign brought the best out of the 28-year-old, and he will of course be ready to spearhead his minnow nation’s attack. Just as Shane Long struck for fellow islanders, Republic of Ireland, Lafferty could become the hero against world champions Germany, and become a story of the tournament for years to come if Northern Ireland emerge from Group C. With above average height, decent pace and commendable work-rate in his favour, Löw’s players should be mindful to keep Kyle in check.