Luis Enrique promised Spain would not wait another 18 years before playing in Catalonia again after a noisy home crowd roared his team to a 2-1 win over Albania.

La Roja had not played in the region since February 2004, when they tackled Peru in a friendly at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium, so Saturday's game was significant from that perspective.

With many in Catalonia harbouring hopes of independence from Spain, Saturday's match at Espanyol's RCDE Stadium was a test of what loyalty there remained to the team.

Head coach Enrique was pleased it proved overwhelmingly positive, and late goals from Ferran Torres and Dani Olmo, either side of a freak equaliser, carried Spain to victory.

"The people deserved that joy," said the Spain boss. "Barcelona likes the national team and the national team likes to come to Barcelona.

"I have been here for many years, and they have always treated me with respect and affection. Catalonia always respects."

 

Luis Enrique – who previously played for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, and coached the former from 2014 to 2017 – added: "It would have bothered me a lot not to win, because of the unique atmosphere that we have experienced.

"I don't remember a game, where I have played or coached, in which the fans have been so decisive. It is impossible that we will be another 18 years without coming here."

Spain remain a work in progress, and they struggled to convert possession into clear-cut chances for long stretches of this friendly fixture. They had 81.5 per cent of possession and played a startling 948 passes to 212 by Albania.

From this they attempted 13 shots, and their expected goals total – reflecting the quality of chances – was a modest 1.7 against a team ranked 65th in the world by FIFA.

Substitute Yeremi Pino created the 75th-minute opener by winning possession from dawdling defenders and threading an ideal ball that Barcelona forward Ferran Torres cracked beyond Etrit Berisha.

Pau Torres then headed a long ball against Albania's Myrto Uzuni and the ball squirted past goalkeeper David Raya to bring Albania level with five minutes remaining.

Olmo had the final say, however, with the RB Leipzig man curling a fine finish into the top-right corner.

"There is a lot of room [for improvement] because we are one of the youngest teams," said the coach. "We do a lot of things well, but we still have a way to go."

Dani Olmo hit a late stunner to spare Spain's blushes and secure a 2-1 win over Albania in a friendly that began in drab fashion but ended in high drama.

Ferran Torres tucked away a pass from substitute Yeremi Pino in the 75th minute to make the breakthrough at Espanyol's RCDE Stadium.

Spain were then stunned when Pau Torres headed a hopeful long ball against Albania's Myrto Uzuni and the ball trickled past debutant goalkeeper David Raya for a freak equaliser.

Yet there was still time for a classy goal from Olmo in the 90th minute, as Spain earned a victory in their first match in Catalonia for 18 years.

Jordi Alba marvelled at the maturity of young Barcelona team-mates Pedri and Gavi because he was playing at a significantly lower level at their age. 

Gavi became the youngest player to make a senior appearance for Spain when he featured in their Nations League semi-final win over Italy last October aged 17 years and 62 days. 

Pedri, meanwhile, started all six of La Roja's games at Euro 2020 and was named Young Player of the Tournament. He only turned 19 last November. 

When he was 18, Alba was playing for Cornella in a regional league in Catalonia. He did not make his Spain debut until he was 22, two years after his first top-flight appearance.

"They are very mature for their age. When I was their age, I was lucky that experienced people helped me adapt, whether it was to the national team, Valencia or Barcelona. I try to do the same," Alba told a news conference when asked about Pedri and Gavi. 

"We are lucky that many high-level players have come from Barcelona and that they are Spanish. 

"At their age, I was playing at Cornella and they are playing European Championships and the World Cup. It's wonderful to watch them play." 

Alba will captain Spain when they take on Albania in a friendly at RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat on the outskirts of Barcelona. It will be La Roja's first match in Catalonia since 2004. 

"I expect a spectacular atmosphere, like in all the cities in Spain we visit," said Alba. 

"We haven't seen the national team in Barcelona for a long time. I'll be able to enjoy it with my people. Hopefully the party moves onto the pitch and we'll achieve our goal of winning the game." 

Spain do not have any members of their World Cup-winning side from 2010 in the squad during this international break, but Alba has no doubts about the ability they possess. 

"They talked about it during the European Championship and we did well because there are very young people but with experience, and with the ability to play a World Cup," said Alba. 

"People are leaving the national team due to their age and young people arrive. The work of the coach and his staff in that aspect has been spectacular. 

"Whoever comes into the national team will respond, will do very well. Unfortunately, the European and world champions are retiring and those who come in will do very well." 

Luis Enrique explained his reason for not signing a new contract as Spain coach is so that it is easy for him to depart if La Roja disappoint at the World Cup.

The 51-year-old former Barcelona player and coach returned for his second stint in charge of Spain's senior side in November 2019.

Five months earlier, he had stepped down for "family reasons" that were later confirmed to relate to his young daughter suffering with cancer. She died in August 2019.

When Luis Enrique made his return to the Spain setup, he only signed a three-year contract that would keep him in charge until the end of the 2022 World Cup.

Since then, he has led Spain to Qatar 2022 and presided over La Roja's run to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, impressing neutrals throughout the tournament.

However, despite what has been a largely positive spell at the helm, there remains a degree of doubt over Luis Enrique's future, which he was refreshingly honest about.

Asked why he had not yet signed a new contract beyond the World Cup, Luis Enrique – who has recently been linked with Manchester United – said: "I'm in heaven.

"Not renewing, I've done it for you [the media]. As I'm not going to have a contract [after the World Cup], if things go wrong in the World Cup, you won't have to ask me to be fired any more."

But his amusingly frank response was qualified by an insistence that there is no issue between himself and either Luis Rubiales or Jose Molina, respectively the Royal Spanish Football Federation's (RFEF) president and sporting director.

"I feel super supported by both the president and Molina," Luis Enrique continued. "They signed me not once but twice.

"In the circumstances in which I came back, I will never forget it. I am going to fulfil my commitment, which is until after the World Cup."

Spain's preparations ahead of the World Cup continue with a friendly against Albania on Saturday at Espanyol's RCDE Stadium in Cornella de Llobregat, near Barcelona.

It will be Spain's first match in Catalonia for 18 years, having last played in the region in February 2004 for a friendly with Peru at the Montjuic Olympic Stadium.

La Roja and Catalonia have had a rocky relationship over the years, but Luis Enrique is excited for such a momentous occasion.

He said: "It's going to be a party. I hope we're at that level. Eighteen years is a long time... We already know the circumstances surrounding this type of occasion, but we face it with great enthusiasm.

"I took it for granted that [the stadium] was going to be full. The last time I played [for a Spain team] in Barcelona, it was the final of the [1992] Olympics and it was full.

"It was one of the best matches of my life for the gold medal. I have no doubts, I hope we can do it, turn it into a party."

Gareth Southgate suggested pundits produce "quotable" takes to "stay relevant" after Roy Keane criticised Harry Maguire's celebration against Albania.

Maguire opened the scoring on Friday at Wembley, immediately racing to the corner where he cupped his hands beside his head before putting his fingers in his ears.

Former Manchester United captain and television pundit Keane criticised the celebration post-match, labelling the gesture as "embarrassing" considering the centre-back's recent club performances.

Maguire, however, remained adamant the celebration came "naturally" to him and was not about silencing critics, nor aimed at anyone in particular.

Southgate, who initially joked his defender's gesture was a wrestling reference, was again questioned on the topic and – while not naming Keane or Maguire – outlined pundits' tendency to work with headlines in mind.

"I think we always have to understand that, the industry we’re in, there are different roles, and in order to make a living in those different roles you’ve got to take certain approaches," Southgate said at Sunday's pre-match news conference ahead of the trip to San Marino.

"You have a choice about which type of approach you’re going to take [when working as a pundit].

"I was always thinking as an ex-player, ex-manager, recognising how difficult those things were, so I guess I had empathy for those that were stepping over the line to play and those that were in the dugout.

"It really depends on what you need to do to stay in work. Some channels or forums require headlines, some require a certain type of approach, everything's different. I understand that.

"To stay relevant in some of those fields, you've got to say things that are more quotable, and of course everything’s lifted now and used from the live broadcast for the next day’s headlines.

"Everybody in those shows knows that's how it works, and it fills a different part of our industry.

"Personally, as a manager, I get it and so be it. I'm sure the players might feel differently, they're younger and have less experience of those fields, but also they think [pundits] surely remember how difficult it was to play and probably didn't like it when they were criticised."

Harry Maguire insists his goal celebration in England's 5-0 win over Albania "was not directed at anyone" following stinging criticism from Roy Keane.

Maguire raced off after scoring the opening goal at Wembley Stadium, sliding on his knees in celebration before cupping his hands beside his head and putting his fingers into his ears.

Former Manchester United midfielder Keane labelled Maguire's celebration as "embarrassing" in light of his recent performances at club level which have drawn criticism.

"When a player scores and puts his hands to his ears, he's like 'shutting the critics up'. But I think that's embarrassing," Keane said on ITV.

"He's been a disgrace the last few months at Man United. He thinks he scores there and he's gonna shut his critics up. Embarrassing."

Maguire was adamant that the gesture was not about silencing any critics, nor aimed at anyone.

"The celebration was a knee slide, it just came naturally to me," Maguire told Sky Sports News. "It's an amazing feeling to score for my country.

"It wasn't directed at anyone, it just came naturally to do that and open the scoring for England and get the important three points."

England manager Gareth Southgate also defended Maguire, who missed last month's international window due to a calf injury.

Is he a Hulk Hogan fan? I don't know what the celebration was for," Southgate said during his news conference. "He's a fabulous player, two months ago he was in the Euros team of the tournament.

"He's rushed back because he's the sort of player who has a huge conscience to help his club. You get lots of players who hide in the treatment room when pressure is on. He hasn't done that and I have massive respect for that but you can go into matches not fully fit and you're judged as fully fit in those moments.

"I've had a good chat with him this week, reminded him how important he is for us, he's been able to switch focus and have a few days on the training pitch which has probably helped, and his performance was very good."

Hat-trick hero Harry Kane was happy with the ruthlessness shown by England as they easily swept aside Albania 5-0 at Wembley Stadium to put themselves on the verge of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Five first-half goals from the Three Lions sealed the victory on Friday, meaning that Gareth Southgate's team need just a point from their final game in Group I against the lowest-ranked team in the world, San Marino, on Monday.

Kane has come in for some criticism at club level this season after scoring just once in 10 Premier League appearances for Tottenham, but he was back to his best for his country, scoring a perfect hat-trick, with a header followed by one with his left foot and one with his right.

Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live after the win, Kane said: "[It was a] great night for the team first and foremost. An important result for us and just the way we went about it.

"To go 5-0 up at half-time shows the character of the squad. We had a bit of a disappointing performance last time we were here at Wembley and we wanted to put that right, and we did that. A great night all round and we can look forward to Monday.

"We were looking to be ruthless all around the pitch, not just in the box or the finishing, we wanted to make it a tough night for them to show the country and the world what we are capable of and I think we did that.

"We will keep doing what we are doing, keep working hard as a team and a squad and hopefully keep improving. Still to get the job done on Monday."

On his own form, Kane was keen to dismiss the relevance of the noise around his performances after going level with Jimmy Greaves in England's all-time scorer list (44).

"Whenever I score I seem to be sharp, whenever I don't, I'm not sharp anymore. That is part and parcel of being a striker. The most important thing is we are moving forward as a team."

England boss Gareth Southgate was equally pleased with his team's efforts, and was understandably effusive about their first-half showing, saying to ITV: "The first half was fantastic, as well as we've played for a long time. It was hard to maintain that.

"We're best when we have an edge. We didn't produce what we should against Hungary, but we had a game tonight that could put us on the verge of qualification for the World Cup.

"I thought Harry gave a brilliant centre forward's performance - held the ball up, played other people in. HIs all-round game was excellent."

Southgate was also asked about rumours that he will sign a new contract. He responded: "We need a point [to qualify] and it would be wrong for my attention to be anywhere else. It's an irrelevance for me. I'm under contract, I'm very well backed and supported and my focus is just on getting qualification done."

Harry Maguire's celebration in England's World Cup qualifier against Albania was "embarrassing" because he has "been a disgrace" at Manchester United, according to a furious Roy Keane. 

United captain Maguire scored the first of five first-half goals for England at Wembley on Friday by heading home a delivery from Reece James. 

The centre-back, who became the most expensive defender of all-time when he moved to Old Trafford in 2019, has come in for significant criticism this season, particularly following his displays against Leicester City, Liverpool and away at Atalanta. 

He responded by celebrating finding the back of the net for his country by cupping his ears and then putting his fingers in them.

However, that decision drew the ire of former United skipper Keane, who won 13 major trophies at Old Trafford and was a key part of their 1998-99 treble-winning campaign.

"When a player scores and puts his hands to his ears, he's like 'shutting the critics up'. But I think that's embarrassing," Keane fumed on ITV. 

"He's been a disgrace the last few months at Man United. He thinks he scores there and he's gonna shut his critics up. Embarrassing." 

In his 13 appearances in all competitions for United this season, Maguire has made three errors leading to shots - more than any of his team-mates and the joint-most among Premier League players.

He also made an error leading to a goal when he gave the ball away ahead of Youri Tielemans' strike in the 4-2 loss to Leicester in October.

Harry Kane scored a perfect hat-trick as England moved within one point of qualification for the 2022 World Cup after a ruthless first-half performance saw them win 5-0 against Albania at Wembley Stadium on Friday.

Kane's treble and goals from Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson - all in the first 45 minutes - sealed a comfortable win for the Three Lions, leaving them needing only to avoid defeat in San Marino on Monday in their final game in Group I to book their place at Qatar 2022.

The visitors were all over the place defensively, looking a shadow of the team that had won three of their previous four away games in the group.

England slowed things down in the second half with the game already well won and Gareth Southgate was even able to rest Kane for the final 30 minutes ahead of the trip to San Marino.

The hosts took the lead in the ninth minute when a superb free-kick from Reece James found an unmarked Maguire at the back post and the Manchester United man thundered his header past Thomas Strakosha.

Myrto Uzuni had a glorious chance to equalise five minutes later when Kyle Walker played a loose pass back to Jordan Pickford, but England's goalkeeper denied him.

It was 2-0 in the 18th minute, Henderson playing a one-two with Phil Foden on the right before lifting in a delicate cross to give Kane a simple header.

Henderson then got in on the act himself as he played another one-two, this time with Kane, and the Liverpool captain finished it off himself with his left foot to make it 3-0 before the half-hour mark.

Kane got his second and England's fourth in the 34th minute by firing past Strakosha with his left foot after being played in by Raheem Sterling. It was the England skipper's 38th competitive goal for England, beating the record set by Wayne Rooney.

The Tottenham man then completed his perfect hat-trick in first-half stoppage time when he executed a sublime scissor kick with his right foot from a Foden corner to make it 5-0 before the break.

The second half was a much quieter affair, though Southgate was able to give a senior international debut to Arsenal youngster Emile Smith Rowe, who replaced Raheem Sterling with 15 minutes remaining. 

What does it mean? Southgate continues to impress

This game was Gareth Southgate's 67th in charge of England, the joint-most of any England manager since Sir Bobby Robson left in 1990, and equalling Sven-Goran Eriksson's tally between 2001 and 2006.

Southgate has won more games (43) than Eriksson could (40) and his latest victory was never in doubt here.

A single point in San Marino will see England qualify for Qatar 2022, and ensure that the Three Lions have progressed to every major tournament since Euro 2008.

Defence is the best form of attack for England

Southgate has often been criticised for his team selections being on the cautious side, and he went into this one with five defenders and two defensive-minded midfielders in his starting XI.

His team then proceeded to tear Albania to shreds in the first half, having 71 per cent of the ball, taking 11 shots and banging in five goals.

England have now scored 42 goals in 2021 - their most ever in a calendar year, overtaking their previous record of 39 in 1908.

Lack of discipline hurts Albania

Albania have had a good qualifying campaign, winning five of their previous eight games heading into this.

They always looked to be on a hiding to nothing against a determined England though and did not help themselves by picking up three bookings in first 25 minutes, making looking after Sterling, Foden and Kane all the trickier.

Edoardo Reja's team were either too strong or too weak in the tackle, only winning 36.9 per cent of their duels.

What’s next?

England travel to San Marino while Albania host Andorra in the final round of UEFA World Cup qualifiers in Group I on Monday.

Gareth Southgate saw room for improvement from England as they coasted to a 2-0 World Cup qualifying defeat of Albania.

The Three Lions followed up their 5-0 drubbing of San Marino with another comfortable Group I win at the Air Albania Stadium on Sunday.

Captain Harry Kane ended a run of six games without a goal for his country with a first-half header and laid one on for Mason Mount after the break.

Kane and Phil Foden also struck the woodwork and Albania could not muster a shot on target in Tirana, where their run of four consecutive victories came to an end.

England boss Southgate was not impressed with the way his side finished a game they dominated ahead of a showdown with Poland at Wembley on Wednesday.

"It was a difficult pitch to move the ball on but we adapted well to that," Southgate told ITV Sport. "After about 25 minutes we just changed the shape of the midfield a little bit and we looked more dangerous.

"They had a different formation to the one they've played in the last 25 matches, so I thought we adapted well to that.

"We were comfortable for most of the second half. I just thought at the end of the game we had opportunities to make it three and should have killed the game off.

"I didn't like the way we managed the game in the last 15 minutes, charging forward when we didn't need to and a throw-in at the end that we nearly conceded a goal from.

"I'm pleased we can win but I thought there were areas we can certainly tighten up on."

Harry Kane set his sights on Poland after scoring one goal and creating another for Mason Mount in England's 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Albania.

Kane had gone six games without finding the back of the net for his country before opening the scoring with a first-half header at the Air Albania Stadium in Tirana on Sunday.

The Three Lions captain turned provider after the break, picking out Mount with a measured pass which the Chelsea midfielder controlled in an instant before dinking over goalkeeper Etrit Berisha and into the back of the net.

Kane and Phil Foden also struck the woodwork in a dominant display from Gareth Southgate's side, who have started their bid to qualify for next year's tournament in Qatar with straightforward victories over San Marino and now Albania.

A much bigger test is expected when England face Poland in Group I on Wednesday, but captain Kane says they will go into that showdown with great confidence.

The Tottenham striker told ITV Sport: "I thought it was a really good performance, maybe a bit slow at the start but we changed our formation and I think that helped.

"Sometimes you go through spells when things don't go your way, that is part of being a striker. You just have to stay focused and it was great to get three points.

"We need to keep working hard but we are in a good place. Poland will be the toughest game in the group but we are ready for that. If we can win that, that puts us in a great position."

England talisman Kane has now had a direct hand in 18 goals in his last 13 games at international level, scoring 11 and providing seven assists.

The 27-year-old's header ensured he has scored in each of his last seven away qualifying matches, the longest ever run by an England player.

Harry Kane scored his first international goal in 16 months as England cruised to a 2-0 World Cup qualifying victory over Albania in Tirana.

Kane had not found the back of the net for his country since November 2019, but the captain opened the scoring with a first-half header at the Air Albania Stadium on Sunday.

The striker then set up Mason Mount to double England's lead in the second half as the Group I leaders made it two wins out of two following their 5-0 hammering of San Marino on Thursday.

Kane and Phil Foden struck the woodwork in a dominant display from Gareth Southgate's side, with Nick Pope becoming the first goalkeeper not to concede a goal in his first six England games as second-placed Albania failed to register a shot on target.

Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka have been ruled out of England's World Cup qualifiers against Albania and Poland.

Manchester United forward Rashford and versatile Arsenal teenager Saka missed England's opening 5-0 Group I defeat of San Marino at Wembley on Thursday.

Rashford and Saka will also play no part against Albania in Tirana on Sunday and a home clash with Poland next Wednesday due to foot and hamstring injuries respectively.

A Football Association statement said: "Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka will play no part in England's forthcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.

"Rashford reported to St. George's Park with an injury that ruled him out of the 5-0 win against San Marino and, following further assessment, it has been decided he will continue his rehabilitation with Manchester United.

"Saka had remained at Arsenal for further assessment on an ongoing issue with the hope of joining up with the Three Lions but will now not be available for the fixtures against Albania and Poland."

Dominic Calvert-Lewin scored twice against San Marino, while James Ward-Prowse, Raheem Sterling and debutant Ollie Watkins were also on target as England started their bid to qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar with a dominant victory.

England's World Cup qualifier with Albania in Tirana on Sunday will go ahead after concerns over security were addressed.

Local police had informed the Albanian Football Association (AFA) that they could not guarantee the safety of the two sides for the Group I encounter at the Air Albania Stadium.

The AFA had asked for a restricted number of fans who have received a coronavirus vaccinations to be allowed into the venue, but the government refused that request.

With police having been unable to offer assurances over the safety of players outside the ground, with no lockdown restrictions in place, the AFA was concerned the fixture may have to be cancelled.  

However, police released a statement later on Thursday confirming the game could ahead, saying they had "taken all measures to guarantee order and security".

 

 

England's World Cup qualifier with Albania in Tirana on Sunday is in doubt amid concerns over security.

Local police informed the Albanian Football Association (AFA) that they could not guarantee the safety of the two sides for the Group I encounter at the Air Albania Stadium.

The AFA had asked for a restricted number of fans who have received a coronavirus vaccination to be allowed into the venue, but the government refused that request.

With police unable to offer assurances over the safety of players outside the ground, with no lockdown restrictions in place, the AFA is concerned the fixture may have to be cancelled.  

An AFA statement said: "Today a letter arrived at the Albanian Football Federation which states that the structures of the local police directorate of Tirana do not guarantee the taking of measures before, during and after the Albania-England match on 28 March.

"Faced with the situation where the state authorities did not react after the request of the Albanian Football Federation for the release of spaces on the perimeter of the national stadium, we request urgent response of these structures.

"The cancellation of the Albania-England match scheduled to be played at Air Albania Stadium would have catastrophic consequences for the image of our country, the national team and in general for Albanian football."

A spokesman for the English Football Association said ahead of England's first qualifier against San Marino on Thursday: "We continue to liaise with the relevant authorities."

 

 

 

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