Plotting from Switzerland’s training base in Montpellier, coach Vladimir Petkovic declared that he wants people to remember his side “for many years to come” going into their Euro campaign. Ahead of their opening clash with major tournament debutants Albania, for a team who won seven out of ten qualifying fixtures conceding eight goals, how heavily can we rate their chances of a major impact at Euro 2016?
Switzerland’s top goalscorer during qualifying was predictably their wing lynchpin, Stoke City’s Xherdan Shaqiri, who made his name at FC Basel before spells at Bayern Munich and Inter Milan. His four goals put him one ahead of Eintracht Frankfurt ‘s Haris Seferovic, who also features in the squad, whilst also having a hand in another four of the 24 the Swiss scored in qualifying. Watford’s Valon Behrami and Fabian Frei of Mainz are other dangerous and reliable options out wide for the Swiss. But the onus will be on Shaqiri and Seferovic to provide the cutting edge in the Swiss forward line along with experienced former Leverkusen forward Eren Derdiyok who know plies his trade in Turkey with Kasimpasa. Basel’s 19-year-old Cameroon born wonderkid Breel Embolo is the wild card in the Swiss ranks, whom Petkovic will be hoping can step up to the plate in the international fold after 18 league goals in his first two professional seasons.
Another player who Swiss supporters will be hoping can step up is Arsenal’s newest recruit, 23 year old Granit Xhaka, who has been tipped as the one to watch in the Swiss camp this campaign. With a price tag of roughly £35 million, Arsenal fans as well as Swiss supporters will be particularly keen to see what the former Basel and Mönchengladbach man can do after drawing comparisons with midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo. The 23 year old already has over 40 caps.
Xhaka, one of several Swiss players of Albanian – Kosovar descent will be the subject of a fascinating test on Saturday when the Swiss open their campaign against Albania. Not only will he be facing the country of his ethnicity, as will four of his teammates, (Valon Behrami, Admir Mehmedi, Xherdan Shaqiri, Blerim Džemaili), but he will face off against his older brother, Taulant Xhaka, who is still a defender at Basel. The siblings were born in Basel to Kosovar-Albanian parents, came through the academy at FC Basel representing Switzerland at youth level.
Taulant, who at 25 is the elder by two years, switched his international allegiance in 2013, making his bow for Albania in September 2014 after overcoming a string of injuries.
Central midfielder Granit was 18 when he made his senior bow for the Swiss in 2011. The battle of the brothers will be a first at a European Championships and the only time such a feat has occurred at a major international tournament since the Boateng brothers – Kevin-Prince Boateng representing his father’s country Ghana and brother Jérôme representing Germany, the nation of their birth. They met in the FIFA World Cups of 2010 and 2014, Germany winning the first encounter 1-0 and then drawing 2-2 in Brazil two summers ago. It puts a rather interesting spin on a fixture which five times out of the last six meetings has been won by the Swiss.
But Petkovic’s troops would do well not to underestimate the tournament debutants – several of whom either own a Swiss passport or ply their trade in Switzerland’s top tier. In a group containing the might of host nation France and a tricky Romanian side which was only undone by an 89th minute long range Dmitri Payet strike, the Swiss are under pressure to get a positive opening result to boost their hopes of qualifying. The Swiss however don’t face the hosts until their final group game, when they clash with Les Bleus on the 19th June in Lille. Theoretically they could have qualification for the last 16 sewn up by that point with victories over Albania and the Romanians, but their coach is certainly taking nothing for granted.
“The first couple of games are always hard to predict” said Petkovic. “There are always so many emotions involved – particularly in this match. It’s our aim to make history together, but it will be difficult”.
“In the opener our aim is clear: to play better than Albania and win the game. To do that, we need to keep our cool and remain focused. Albania are defensively sound and very well-organised so we need to make sure we capitalise on their mistakes.”
Given their group scenario, the Swiss should realistically progress for the first time in the competition, and they will most likely be optimistic of going further. Spain are likely opponents in the Quarter Finals, however. If the Swiss were to get there, and bar a sensational performance akin to their opening win at the World Cup in South Africa in 2010, many cynics could be forgiven for topping Switzerland’s voyage at this year’s tournament to end there.
Attacking wise, the Swiss have a wealth of talent, but it is the defensive side of their game that may prove their Achilles Heel. Indeed, much of their defensive talent is also attack minded, their first choice full backs being Juventus’ Stephan Lichtsteiner and Wolfsburg’s Ricardo Rodríguez who will look to get up the flanks to provide ammunition for the forwards, where the Swiss have height to aim for. Without the experience of Philippe Senderos to call upon this tournament, former Arsenal man Johan Djourou and Hoffenheim’s Fabian Schär will most likely be tasked with shoring up the Swiss rearguard. A defensive minded midfielder in Gelson Fernandes or Blerim Džemaili to play the role of screening the back line will be of huge importance not only in suring up a potentially leaky defence, but also in giving the fullbacks license to roam forward and support the wingers, and in allowing Xhaka the freedom to pull the strings in midfield without having to contend with tracking back to protect his defence.
The defense will also receive the boost of having a capable shot stopper behind them in Yann Sommer. The goalkeeper who impressed in the Champions League for FC Basel, contributing to the undoing of Manchester United back in 2010, is now also playing in the Bundesliga at ‘Gladbach and has successfully filled the gloves vacated by former Swiss number one Diego Benaglio. The ability of the 27 year old to once more thwart some of Europe’s finest may also prove decisive in Switzerland’s campaign.
There will be far more of an insight into Swiss prospects in France after they play out their Euro 2016 curtain raiser againsr Albania, a special match for several players in the team, but which nonetheless is a game where three very important points are at stake in a potentially tricky group.
Switzerland and France are the clear favourites in Group A, but Romania having conceded a mere two goals in their qualifying campaign will prove a tough nut to crack along with hosts France, and is bound to be a tough encounter.
The Swiss however are regular qualifiers for international showpieces and thus are known for being generally solid as a team. Of course they also have a handful of world class individuals in their ranks who can decide a game, but the image of solidity has characterised the Switzerland team in years gone by. They aim to play dynamic attacking football with the fullbacks supporting the wingers and don’t sit back. However their attack minded approach can often bring about their downfall against the stringer nations, leaving them vulnerable to the counter attack against better, more streetwise opposition. Two Danny Welbeck goals for England cutting the Swiss apart on the break in Basel in their opening Euro qualifier in 2014 is a strong example of this.
Committing many wide men forward, the Swiss are vulnerable at the back, which is why the setup of the team and having a player to fill in and help protect the defence will be critical in more even games. The defence will also be put to the test against opposition where the Swiss will have to sit off and aim to break their opponents, as will most likely be the case against the superior attacking quality of the French in their final game, though if Petkovic and his troops can get it right in their opening two games, the outcome may not matter, and the Swiss can use the game against the French as an opportunity to perfect their tactical approach in readiness for stronger opposition. That will render their opening two games all the more important, for if the side go into Matchday 3 needing something to progress, their tournament may be ending sooner rather than later if Petkovic cannot perfect his formula.
Though the Swiss will take great heart from Romania ‘s encouraging performance against the hosts, and will sense that hosts France are potentially vulnerable. If the Swiss like Romania can hold their own over the hosts and give themselves a chance at usurping top spot, that may prove decisive in their wider prospects in the tournament and assist them in avoiding stronger nations in the knockouts. It would be a real coup, but could give Petkovic’s men a real shout at a quarter final place and possibly even more. The last eight should be the Swiss target and warrants a success, any further would be phenomenal, but that takes nothing away from the prowess and potential of the side and they should nonetheless be considered a dark horse in France.
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