How far can Shaqiri and co carry Switzerland at Euro 2016?
Holly Thackeray | April 14, 2016
Everyone loves a dark horse heading into a major footballing tournament and past European Championships have a reputation, and history, from Denmark to Greece, of being open to underdogs.
Bearing this in mind, it’s worth contemplating the quality hiding in Switzerland’s squad, and wondering just how far this talented generation can take their nation?
Euro 2016, of course, has its favourites already, with France, Spain, Germany and the remaining gaggle of usual suspects seeing cash piled on thick and fast. But, not every side has to lift silverware to see their excursion as a success.
As the team that ran in a distant second to England in qualifying Group E, Switzerland (or La Nati, Schweizer Nati, Squadra Nazionale depending which side of the Alps you prefer), have it all to prove. Yet, there is every chance they could outshine their group betters, who regularly fail to live up to expectations, when it comes to the crunch.
A tale of two brothers
This summer, with some intriguing narratives taking place in Switzerland’s Group A, the Swiss will be expecting to qualify for the first knockout round with ease.
Of course, hosts and neighbours France are pool favourites by far, but coach Vladimir Petkovic has already tipped his team to perhaps “spring a surprise.”
On paper, the Swiss are clearly second best, with minnows Albania and Romania set to compete for a best third-placed finish, meaning La Nati (we’ll go with this nickname as it hails from the hosts’ language) don’t look worth taking at 11/4 with Coral for an early group exit.
Though, Tricolour team Romania boast a stout defence, meaning safe passage must not be assumed, and their final pool opponent in France will certainly hope to stand in their way.
Potentially deciding Switzerland’s fate is a last encounter with true outsiders Albania and, along with the Eagles, comes a sporting story with a personal twist which aptly represents those two closely linked countries.
Granit Xhaka and Taulant Xhaka are the talented pair that will attract headlines, as the brothers (both born in Basel, but of Albanian heritage) will face off, pitting siblings against one another for the first time in European Championship history.
“Like a derby”
“We have to play Albania, which will be like a derby as a lot of members of the Albanian team grew up in Switzerland,” said Petkovic. “We will get the chance to see two brothers playing each other.
“It will be a real derby with a lot of emotion. But our objective is to get through this group and make it into the next round.”
Petkovic, in fact, has six stars in his side that would have been eligible for Albania, including Stoke City sensation Xherdan Shaqiri, Borussia Monchengladbach’s aforementioned Granit Xhaka, plus Watford recruit Valon Behrami among others.
While, on the Eagles’ side, Albania’s recent squad selections have featured up to seven Switzerland-born players ready to don their red and black kits, with Taulant Xhaka and former Basel forward Shkelzen Gashi among those flying the flag for the country of their heritage.
Big-guns from Pool C potentially await
As it happens, a handful of Switzerland’s key men are the contingent with Albanian roots but, will the sparkle of Shaqiri and his sweet left peg, complemented with Granit Xhaka’s astute and intuitive anchoring abilities be enough to see the Swiss past the last 16?
Coral have odds of 6/4 for Switzerland to check out in the last 16, which could be the best bet considering Poland are tipped be their likely opponents, with the runner-up of Group A destined to meet their similarly second placed peers from Pool C.
For Petkovic’s prodigies, this could mean a first knockout tie with Poland, who are expected to emerge from duels with Germany, Northern Ireland and Ukraine with enough points in the tank to set up this tussle.
The name Robert Lewandoswki would send shivers down any defence’s spine and, unless a surprise package manages to squeeze through, or Switzerland somehow capitalise on some French stage fright to finish in pole pool position, they could face a very tricky path to the quarter-finals.
Swiss striving for a best ever Euros finish
Still, Petkovic’s squad should not be underestimated, especially in the lottery of a knockout tournament.
Though, the Swiss are yet to ever even clear the group stage of a European Championship, meaning this crop could claim to be one of the country’s best ever vintages should they manage such a feat.
It does, however, make a quarter-final elimination (11/4), or further, seem a stretch. Yet, this nation often does well close to the comforts of home, having finished in the quarters of World Cup finals on French, Italian and their own soil before.
Mix of youth and experience
So, perhaps ending their journey in the last 16 for the first time is the ambition to aim for, with any further mileage a brilliant bonus.
And, of course, due to a favourable draw this should be achievable. Petkovic has at his disposal a set of accomplished chess pieces, with balance between aged wisdom and youthful exuberance hinting at Swiss success.
Up top, much of La Nati’s edge will be reliant on Bundeslig Haris Seferovic (of Bosnian descent), with Josip Drmic injured, and this competition could prove a crossroads for the attacker.
Caught between being classed as youth or a senior member of the squad, 22-year-old Seferovic (who hangs his hat at Eintracht Frankfurt) is far from a finished poaching product, not currently setting his club alight, but having found the net on multiple occasions for his country across 2015.
Attacking impetus on Shaqiri’s shoulders
Basel’s Breel Embolo, meanwhile, has been tearing up in his domestic league, and seems the brightest Swiss talent since Shaqiri emerged.
The youngster figuring in the squad, now with seven caps but just one strike, may just be the joker in the pack for Petkovic, and prevent the coach from relying only on explosive play from a certain Stoke star.
A player whose exploits – namely 25 goals over the past two terms at club level aged just 19 – have caught the attention of the Premier League elite, Cameroon-born Embolo certainly enjoys running at players with speed.
Still, as the fledgling forward awaits his big break, much of the burden of ingenuity will still remain on Shaqiri’s shoulders – can the flexible playmaker deliver? He has sparkled in the red and white stripes of Stoke, with two goals and four assists for the Potters, but the player dubbed ‘Alpine Messi’ cannot do it all alone.
Shaqiri’s intelligent movement and slipped through balls need a goal-getter to gobble them up, meaning someone else will have to step forward.
Eren Derdiyok, of Turkish roots, is scoring up a storm in Istanbul at Kasimpasa, and presents another option, having hit the second-most strikes behind Shaqiri in his international squad.
Can Inler hold it all together?
Leicester City’s Gokhan Inler was regarded with much admiration before a late career move to the Premier League ended up with limited playing time.
Still a classy and composed shield on his day, there are questions if the 31-year-old still has the legs for the highest level. Restricted pitch duties could also leave the veteran rusty, but with energetic Xhaka to partner, it will be his command and organisation that remains most crucial.
Fabian Frei, recently returned from injury, and the likes of Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili, mean there is enough depth to keep the Swiss ticking over centrally.
As for defence, there are plenty of eye-catching names including stopper Yann Sommer, Johan Djourou, Ricardo Rodriguez, Fabian Schar, Stephan Lichtsteiner and Timm Klose, but CVs alone count for little.
Almost all have had questions over form this campaign, meaning the Swiss will need to ensure their goal is well guarded if they are to strike gold in France, and leave the attack as Shaqiri’s stage.