Switzerland are a typical big tournament in-betweeners. Not dark horses by any stretch, but not pushovers either. The Swiss possess the firepower to overcome Romania and Albania, the weaker teams in their Euro 2016 group, and are likely to qualify for the knockout stages, but aren't strong enough to upset hosts France.
Switzerland have progressed steadily in recent years and have left their mark on world football. In 2009, the Swiss Under-17 team, the country's own little golden generation, triumphed at the U-17 World Cup in Nigeria, still the country's only major football trophy across junior and senior levels.
A year later, the senior team caused a major upset at the World Cup by defeating European champions – and eventual world champions – Spain in the opening game. Failure to qualify for Euro 2012 stunted Switzerland's progress but at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the team reached the round-of-16 before taking Argentina to extra time and only bowing out on account of a solitary goal. That was under the guidance of German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who came in with a coaching pedigree and put well-organised teams out on the pitch.
Since 2014, Vladimir Petkovic has been the coach of the national team. Euro 2016 is his first major international assignment. Barring a one-year stint at Italian club Lazio where he achieved cup success, there isn't much of note on his CV. But having managed six different Swiss clubs, the Croatian-Bosnian coach who also holds a Swiss passport is no stranger to the country and understands its football customs. He guided Switzerland to a second-place finish behind England in the qualifying stage. But it was far from smooth-sailing. Two defeats to the English were expected, but an away loss to Slovenia complicated matters. In fact, only a stunning comeback from being 0-2 down to win 3-2 against Slovenia in Basel allowed the Swiss a shot at Euro 2016.
Petkovic took some tough and debatable calls by excluding experienced seniors like Gokhan Inler, Philippe Senderos and Pajtim Kasami from the Euro 2016 squad. He has at his disposal a mix of players who ply their trade in Germany, Italy, England and France. Only five members of the squad played in Switzerland's top-tier last season.
Midfielders Xherdan Shaqiri (Stoke City), Granit Xhaka (now at Arsenal) and skipper and right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus) are the team's most well-known faces.
As far as creativity goes, a lot will rest at the feet of Shaqiri, an outstanding playmaker-cum-winger, and with Xhaka, an all-action central midfielder who makes the Swiss midfield tick. Shaqiri bagged a couple of man-of-the-match awards in the 2014 World Cup and also scored a hat-trick against Honduras. In the current squad, he is the top goal-scorer with 17 goals. For Switzerland to stand any chance of going deep into the tournament, he will certainly have to be at his best.
Both Shaqiri and Xhaka, incidentally, were part of the team that reached the 2011 U-21 European final, while the latter was also a member of the triumphant Under-17 World Cup squad two years earlier. They are footballers who're still maturing, but are approaching their peak years — always a dangerous sign for opponents.
Adding further steel to the midfield are Valon Behrami (Watford), a footballing nomad who's played at Napoli and West Ham among other clubs, and Blerim Džemaili (Genoa), who too has previously represented Napoli. These two will take up the mantle of delivering in the absence of Inler, a former captain who was left out following just five appearances last season for English champions Leicester City.
A combative and compact midfield allows its full-backs to push up the pitch and flourish. They represent another source of strength for Petkovic's side. In Lichtsteiner, a tireless runner on the right wing, and Ricardo Rodriguez (Wolfsburg), an attack-minded left-back and former U-17 world champion, the Swiss possess a formidable full-back pair. You can expect these two to frequently bombard forward in matches.
Goal-scoring, though, has been a problem. In qualifying, forwards Haris Seferovic and Josip Drmic scored only three goals each — one less than top-scoring Shaqiri did. Seferovic comes on the back of a torrid season at Eintracht Frankfurt while Drmic isn't in the squad due to injury.
It'll be up to the likes of Breel Embolo, a popular 19-year-old who is making waves with FC Basel, and Admir Mehmedi, the Bayer Leverkusen forward who hasn't been a prolific scorer, to somehow find goals for the team.
Although Switzerland scored 24 goals in 10 qualifying games, 21 of those came against minnows San Marino, Lithuania and Estonia. Both matches against England and one game Slovenia drew blanks. Moreover, only seven goals in six friendlies leading up to the Euros is also a worrying figure. These include defeats to Belgium, Slovakia, Republic of Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
At the other end of the pitch, too, problems persist. The likely first-choice centre-back pairing of Johan Djourou and Fabian Schar haven't been consistent — largely due to fitness concerns. Senderos hasn't merited a place while Timm Klose has missed out due to injury. Petkovic's side are a little too thin in this department which is why he generally prefers to protect them by playing a defensive-minded midfield trio, even if it comes at the cost of creativity.
France 2016 will be Switzerland's fourth European Championships. On each of the previous three occasions, they've been eliminated at the group stage. However, with this tournament being a 24-team event as opposed to the usual 16 teams, there are even weaker teams in the mix. This gives the Swiss a great opportunity to end their group-stage hoodoo.
They'll need a fast start since Albania and Romania are the first two opponents. Needing a result from the final group game against hosts France — who hammered the Swiss 5-2 in Brazil two years ago — will be a massive problem.
You can expect a second-place finish from Petkovic's men and perhaps some glimpses of flamboyance from a couple of gifted individuals. But don't expect to be entertained.
First Published On : Jun 8, 2016 16:58 IST