Ottmar Hitzfeld leaving solid Switzerland legacy after World Cup
It is one of football’s great mysteries how Switzerland – a side that has always prided itself on being tough to beat rather than prolific – were drawn into World Cup Group E (9/4 to win this pool) as top seeds.
The curiosities of FIFA World Rankings, plus the fact France under Didier Deschamps had to qualify via the play-offs for Brazil, are matters to be discussed elsewhere.
Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Swiss side are odds-on to reach the knockout phase at 4/7. The veteran German gaffer is retiring from management after the finals and getting his youthful charges out of the group stage is the essential minimum required.
France are worthy foes of course, but Latin American opposition Ecuador and Honduras should simply be yielding six points for Switzerland. Hitzfeld’s successor Vladimir Petkovic – lined up long before Lazio sacked him – had better be watching, because the outgoing boss is pretty much leaving him an entire team.
A mere handful of the 23-man squad the Swiss will send to the World Cup will be aged 30 or over. Chief among those elder statesmen are number one Diego Benaglio (Wolfsburg) and right wing back Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus).
Petkovic is thus set to inherit a vast majority of players entering or in their prime from Hitzfeld, and Brazil is the stage for several names to shine. There is likely to be a place in defence for set piece threat Fabian Schar – Switzerland’s top-scorer in qualifying with three.
Hitzeld could be forgiven for leaving former Arsenal centre back Johan Djourou out altogether following a disastrous Bundesliga campaign with Hamburg, which could yet culminate in relegation.
Philippe Senderos, another ex-Emirates flop; Bengalio’s Wolfsburg teammate Timm Klose and Steve von Bergen, of the Young Boys of Berne, are also competing for another berth in the heart of defence.
Michael Lang, from Grasshopper Club in Zurich, meanwhile, should be included on utility grounds. He can cover both for Lichtsteiner and at centre half. Former Spurs left back Reto Ziegler faces a straight battle with a third Wolfsburg player, the highly-rated Ricardo Rodriguez, for that spot.
Backup to Benaglio between the sticks comes in the form of Yann Sommer (Basel) and Marco Wolfli (Young Boys). Midfield is where Switzerland possess the greatest strength in depth, with several names familiar to Premier League audiences.
Valon Behrami and Blerim Dzemaili (both Napoli), and Gelson Fernandes (Freiburg) will be remembered by West Ham, Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City fans respectively.
National captain Gokhan Inler (also Napoli), young Granit Xhaka (Borussia Monchengladbach) and Eintracht Frankfurt skipper Pirmin Schwegler are also available options for the middle of the park.
How much room is there on the roster for wide men and strikers, though? Probably not enough for four each, if all those central midfielders are going to Brazil.
Uncapped CSKA Moscow winger Steven Zuber looks set to miss out, unless injury rules out one of the experienced Tranquillo Barnetta (Eintracht Frankfurt), Fulham’s versatile Pajtim Kasami, Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich) or Valentin Stocker (Basel).
Eren Derdiyok (Bayer Leverkusen) has more goals than any other Swiss striker recently called up, but may miss out on inclusion to younger options.
He turns 26 on the day Brazil kick the finals off, but the likes of Haris Seferovic (Real Sociedad), Admir Mehmedi (Freiburg), Mario Gavranovic (FC Zurich) and Nuremberg hotshot Josip Drmic are ahead of him.
It is because Derdiyok has been used almost exclusively as a substitute by Leverkusen that Hitfeld may omit him. The coach has also ditched Livorno loanee Innocent Emeghara midway through qualifying.
Switzerland’s squad is thus packed full of potential and proven, steady talent. Anything less than the last 16 would be under-achieving.
Look to Drmic (at the time of writing only Mario Mandzukic and Robert Lewandowski had scored more Bundesliga goals than him) to snap up their group stage chances, after bagging a brace against Croatia in a World Cup warm-up game.
Basel boy Schar is also a major nuisance from corners and free kicks, so expect him to capitalise on such situations, especially against the weak defences of Ecuador and Honduras.
Odds of 80/1 suggest the Swiss cannot win the competition, but a more tempting price of 9/2 on their stage of elimination being the quarter-finals is well worth considering.