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Gianni De Biasi exclusive: Azerbaijan hopes; Albania pride & wanting to coach Chelsea ace Broja

Gianni De Biasi is regarded among the most influential coaches connected to Italian football. And for Albania, he is a genuine coaching great.

Now 66 and boasting a career which has stretched over 30 years, De Biasi is taking on his latest challenge - Azerbaijan - with the personal goal of a second historic Euros qualification.

A veteran of club sides ranging from Modena, Torino and Udinese to Spain's Levante, De Biasi's greatest achievement was leading Albania to qualification and an outstanding 2016 Euros.

Now in charge of Azerbaijan, De Biasi was kind enough to sit down with and discuss his ambitions for his adopted national team, his past with Albania and general thoughts on today's football.

De Biasi's new contract with Azerbaijan was barely a fortnight old when we met. The veteran revealing three serious offers had been brought to him by his trusted agent Nicola Giuliani of Giuliani Sports.

“Yes I had other offers to be honest - three offers, one was from another national team and two from clubs in Italy," he confirmed. "But I wanted to continue to work a difficult one due to the Euro 2024 draw for Azerbaijan. We weren't so lucky in this draw as Albania. This has happened to me before in the draw for Euro 2016 when I was the coach of Albania when we had a very difficult group and we managed to qualify.

"I hope we will do the same this time, though I think it'll be very hard to achieve it."

Reflecting on the draw, De Biasi says facing Belgium is the standout.

“I think for our team all the matches are very difficult ones. Belgium is a team with great stars, that has been the first team in the FIFA ranking, they have players of a great stature. Instead, about Sweden I think it's a very physical team with players playing in the best leagues in Europe. And about Austria, it's a very strong team with players not only like (David) Alaba but also other players that play in the Bundesliga. And for my team and my players where most of them play in the local championship it's a very difficult task.

"But in saying this I'm not saying that we are giving up, but we will play our matches and do our best to achieve our objectives."

As De Biasi says, he draws the majority of his squad from the local championship, though has hopes of seeing more of his players moving to abroad to more competitive leagues.

“The level of the Azerbaijan championship, it's getting better year after year, we have good players but the only problem is that we have not so many players to choose from. This year's championship, it's with 10 teams and in these teams seven players are foreigners, and for me I've left to choose four players from each team for a total 40 players.

"We have done good things, we have created a group of players of 24 years old with lot of young players born in 2000, 2001 who are playing regularly and I hope they can grow up more."

De Biasi admits he is hoping to replicate his success with Albania, a period in his life he'll always treasure. By his own admission, he needed little prodding to look back on the experience. But even more so, today's Albania has him impressed.

“It has a lot of qualities, has players that play in the best teams and leagues in the world. Almost all the defenders play in Serie A, the midfielders that play in Switzerland, in Spain. But I don't think this team has that desire, that unity that my Albanian team had. My opinion is if the team creates that spirit that group desire and humility and play as a team, they would have a great chance to qualify for Euro 2024 in Germany.

"I told President (Armand) Duka that Albania can qualify and that they can be first in their group."

Marash Kumbulla (Roma), Kristjan Asllani (Inter Milan) and Armando Broja (Chelsea) are three young players Albania have the highest hopes for - and their talent isn't lost on De Biasi.

“Kumbulla is a very good player who will be very important for the national team, but this year he has had a lot of injuries. About Asllani, I don't know him personally, but I think he is a very good player and an important one for the future. It's important that he can play more and more minutes, be stable and keep in mind that he is young and needs a lot of work to become a better player.

"Broja I don't know him, but he has technical and physical qualities that are extraordinary, he needs to continue to work hard and give every minute he play 100% for the team. But for him I would say that I would love to have players like him in my team."

Asked directly about a comparison between Edy Reja's team and his 2016 heroes, De Biasi delivered an honest response.

“From the technical point of view and from the players perspective I think this national team is better than mine. But my team was better in the desire they put on the pitch, from the spirit and group they had created in that time. My team was better because it had an identity that this team now seems to be missing."

Beyond the international stage and while happily settled in Azerbaijan, De Biasi is still a passionate follower of Serie A and the conversation soon turned to Juventus and the problems confronting coach Max Allegri.

“There are difficulties that you may face sometimes in football, that one person outside the club and society thinks that its impossible that a team like Juventus with these kind of players can have these kind of problems. I think that Allegri is doing the impossible to fix the things, nowadays it's looking impossible that these problems can be fixed soon, but Allegri has demonstrated other times too that he can come back stronger from difficult situations and win the championship like he has done in the past."

At Inter Milan, Simone Inzaghi was facing similar issues until they're great success in the Champions League home and away against Barcelona. For many inside the Italian game, the results were a surprise - but not for De Biasi.

"I think it was not a surprise. Before the two games, I was convinced that Inter could achieve some good results against Barcelona. Inter came very close to winning also the second match, but the quality of the players of Barcelona made the difference. But I think that Inter this year and last year too was the strongest team in Italy, despite the fact that they lost the championship due to some mistakes they made."

For Allegri and Inzaghi, the message is: don't write them off. A message which can also apply to De Biasi. Opinionated. Charismatic. And an Albanian football legend. Don't write off Azerbaijan's chances of reaching Euro 2024 with Gianni de Biasi in charge.

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Xhulio Zeneli

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