By Zoran Milosavljevic
LYON, France (Reuters) - A first-half header by striker Armando Sadiku gave Albania a 1-0 win over Romania at Euro 2016 on Sunday and kept alive their hopes of reaching the knockout stages of their first major tournament.
The result of a pulsating clash left the Albanians third in Group A on three points behind France and Switzerland, meaning that they are in contention to finish as one of the best four third-placed teams who will progress to the last 16.
It also eliminated a toothless Romanian side who finished bottom on one point. A lack of cutting edge made them easy prey for the competition’s rank outsiders, who thrived in an intense atmosphere in Lyon’s new stadium.
"In the first two games we didn't collect any points when we deserved more but tonight we reaped the rewards of an excellent performance against a good team," Albania's Italian coach Gianni De Biasi told a news conference.
"We missed a few chances but I am happy because it's not easy to play a match in which only a win will do."
Man of the match Arlind Ajeti said: "We will hope till the very end that these three points will be sufficient to see us through to the knockout stages.
"Either way, we made history first by reaching the European Championship and then by winning our first three points. I am so proud to be a part of this team."
Romania made a bright start and their crisp passing kept the Albanians on the back foot in the opening 20 minutes but they were restricted to long-range efforts and a Bogdan Stancu volley which was saved by goalkeeper Etrit Berisha.
As in their opening two games, Albania were well organized at the back and disciplined in midfield.
Roared on by their noisy fans, many of whom were wearing traditional cone-shaped white caps, the Albanians missed a superb chance in the 23rd minute when left wing Ermir Lenjani skied his close-range shot with the goal at his mercy.
The sweeping move which carved open Romania’s defense was a sign of things to come as Ledian Memushaj tested Romania keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu after a dazzling solo run and Migjen Basha fired wildly over the bar from 18 meters.
Then came Albania’s first goal at a tournament in the 43rd minute when Sadiku headed superbly into the far corner from a tight angle after a cross from the right by Memushaj.
The second half produced the same pattern as Romania’s sporadic attacks kept breaking down in the last third of the pitch while Albania looked dangerous every time they came forward purposefully.
Memushaj almost got a second goal after producing a good save by Tatarusanu while substitute Florin Andone rattled the crossbar with a fierce shot at the other end as Romania launched a late onslaught.
Mergim Mavraj and Andi Lila came close for Albania in the dying minutes as the Romanians ran out of steam and ideas.
Romania coach Anghel Iordanescu said the current Albanian side were a different prospect from those he had known in the past.
"This is not the Albanian team I knew when I was young, as 21 of their 23 players ply their trade abroad," the 66-year-old Iordanescu said.
"It's a painful loss but I can't blame the players for lack of commitment because they tried hard. We just didn't take the chances we had in a good start to the game."
(Editing by Clare Fallon)