Serbia snatches 2-0 win in Albania in tense Euro qualifier
ELBASAN, Albania (AP) Serbia snatched a late 2-0 over Albania with injury-time goals from Aleksandar Kolarov and Adem Ljajic, stunning the hosts in a tense European qualifier.
The match took place a year after the two sides met in a violent confrontation in Belgrade involving a drone flown onto the pitch.
Following a drama-filled build up to Thursday's game, the Albanians fought tirelessly for possession, roared on by rowdy supporters through long spells of heavy rain. But 12,000 fans at Elbasan Arena were silenced when Alksandar Mitrovic unselfishly left the ball to Kolarov who fired in at an angle. Ljajic added the second moments later following a solo run.
Authorities imposed heavy security, with road closures, a heavy police presence and individual searched of all the supporters entering the stadium.
Serbian fans stayed away from the Group I game and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic also turned down an invitation to attend.
''Overall, I think we deserved the win. We sustained a lot of pressure at the start of the game and lost concentration for a spell in the second half,'' said Serbia coach Radovan Curcic, whose team had already been eliminated.
''But we came here to score a goal and that's what we did. We regained our composure late in the game and that was decisive.''
Determined to prevent a repeat of violence, police carried out a riot drill a few hours before kickoff in front of thousands of bemused fans, firing water cannon bursts as a helicopter buzzed over nearby apartment buildings.
During searches, police dumped lighters, phone chargers -which they believed could be used as weapons - and nationalist banners into the gutter, as they checked ticket names against passports and ID cards.
Albania is guaranteed a playoff spot for Euro 2016 qualifying, but Thursday's result saw the Eagles suffer a setback in their quest for a direct place in their first major tournament.
The hosts pressed throughout the game but created few chances, their best also coming late in the match. Taulant Xhaka fired across the Serbian goal in the 60th minute. Sokoi Cikalleshi's powerful shot toward goal in the 76th was well saved by Serbian goalkeeper Vladimir Skojkopvic.
''We should have been more careful at the end after showing maturity during the match,'' Albanian captain Lorik Cana. ''They were expecting that moment to catch us by surprise in a counterattack. We should have stopped that.''
Serbia and Albania remain at odds over the status of now-independent Kosovo, and fan rivalry is still intense after a decade of Balkan wars through the 1990s.
Home supporters in Elbasan, including many traveling from Kosovo, booed loudly when the Serbian national anthem was played but clapped when rival players were photographed forming a joint line before the game started.
Edi Rama, the Albanian prime minister, watched the match alone in the stands, and thanked the fans for their good behavior.
He wished the team luck on its final qualifier in Armenia on Sunday.
''A draw would have been fair but that's football. The best people at the stadium today were the amazing red-and-black public fans,'' Rama wrote on his Facebook page. ''Tomorrow's another day. The dream continues in Armenia.''
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