Potentially Switzerland’s best ever team go into their World Cup qualifying play-off with confidence but are not yet good enough to let that become complacency
9 November ~ The equation for the World Cup qualifying play-off against Northern Ireland is a simple one in most Swiss eyes. Match their opponents’ fighting spirit and we will win because we have the better players. Switzerland’s confidence remains high after winning nine out of ten of their qualifying games, despite the defeat in their final match in Portugal that cost them automatic passage to Russia on goal difference.
There is a recurring debate here about whether this might even become Switzerland’s best-ever team. It blends old heads such as Stephan Lichtsteiner with exciting young prospects Denis Zakaria and Breel Embolo and contains a core of players hitting their peak, such as keeper Yann Sommer, Ricardo Rodríguez and Admir Mehmedi. All bar the couple of youngsters now have at least two major tournament experiences behind them and, unlike previous generations, most of the squad are playing regularly for strong clubs in Europe’s better leagues.
These experiences should enable the Swiss to cope with the tension of the occasion. The players have been remarking on how Windsor Park’s boisterous backing will lift the home team for the first leg but they appear eager to embrace the challenge.
Switzerland’s all-round level-headedness and relatively recent elevation from eternal underdogs means that confidence is unlikely to slip over into complacency. While they have improved under their most attack-minded coach for years, Vladimir Petkovic, the Swiss are well aware that breaking down well-organised opponents who sit back, like Northern Ireland, sometimes remains a problem for them. If Michael O'Neill’s team manage to squeeze the first goal out of an occasionally accident prone Swiss defence, matters could get very edgy for the “Nati”.
The key to the contest is likely to be held by forwards Xherdan Shaqiri and Haris Seferovic. As Stoke City and Bayern Munich fans will probably testify, Shaqiri can be a frustrating figure. He is capable of high energy performances laced with moments of sublime genius. But all too often he struggles with distraction and niggling injuries. Seferovic is 90 per cent of a complete centre-forward, doing all the aspects of the job beautifully bar the rather crucial one of finishing reliably.
If either or both are at their best, then Switzerland should have enough to beat Northern Ireland over two legs. If not, then the explosive Embolo will be asked to emerge from the bench to save the day. This might be too big of a task for the young man, as he is still feeling his way back from a horrendous knee injury that cost him his first season at Schalke. Paul Knott