Albania's qualification for their first major tournament was built on the meticulous organisation of head coach Gianni de Biasi, whose work since taking the reins in 2011 has finally paid off. Like many of the teams to have capitalised on the expanded format of this summer's European Championships, the Eagles' progression has been built on solidity at the back, which has helped get rid of a reputation of being cannon fodder for the rest of the continent, having been ranked in 96<sup>th in Fifa's world rankings just seven years ago.

A measure of the shrewd Biasi's progress even saw him briefly linked with replacing Antonio Conte as the Italian national team manager, when the role becomes vacant after this summer's competition.

Conceding just five goals in eight qualifying games helped them secure automatic qualification as runners up behind group winners Portugal. At the heart of that defence that night and throughout their historic qualifying campaign was their leader on the pitch Lorik Cana.

Perhaps most notably remembered as a no-nonsense presence in midfield from his spell at Sunderland during the 2009-10 season, 32-year-old Cana has occupied a deeper role in recent years, starting at centre-half in each of his country's qualifiers, including in the hugely impressive 1-0 win away to Portugal in September 2014.

During that campaign, he was at the centre of the extremely unsavoury scenes that marred Albania's qualifying match against Serbia, where political and ethnic tensions in the region boiled over as fights broke out between players, fans and officials. The match was abandoned after 42 minutes and Serbia's role in the fracas saw Albania awarded the 3-0 win.

Lorik Cana
Cana, having spent most of his career in France, will return there with Albania next month. Getty

Cana's striking leadership skills helped keep Albania's qualification bid on track after that incident, traits that have stuck with him throughout his club career which took him to Lazio for four years following his spell at the Stadium of Light. In 2015, a return to the Premier League almost beckoned, only for the former Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille midfielder to eventually settle on a return to France where he joined Nantes.

At the base of De Biasi's evolving side is Cana, whose international pedigree has seen him capped 90 times for his country and named Albanian player of the year on three occasions. His powerful and intimidating presence now in the heart of defence is complimented by his wealth of experience in England, Turkey, Italy and France, making him a hugely valuable asset for a country whose own experience international competition is non-existent. In fact, Albania's only previous participation in any Uefa competition came in an Under-18s championship in 1982 and an Under-16s championship in 1994.

Lorik Cana
Cana played in a midfield role during his days at Sunderland. Getty

Featuring in defence in all eight of Albania's qualifiers, only former Lazio team-mate Etrit Berisha and Taulant Xhaka were as prominent in qualification as the former Black Cat. Albania's second group match against France takes place at the Stade Velodrome, a place Cana called home for four years while playing for Marseille. If he can inspire perhaps the competition's most unfancied proposition to shock the hosts on that night, it could be a very interesting homecoming.