Euro 2016: Granit Xhaka dazzled in win over Albania but Switzerland left with plenty to ponder
Switzerland may have come away with all three points against plucky Albania but they found themselves caught in one of football’s vague traps: the struggle to play against 10 men.
With three minutes left on the clock, Albanian substitute Shkelzen Gashi was given the freedom of Stade Bollaert-Delelis as he found himself all clear in front of goal. Gashi is one of several Switzerland-born players in the Albanian squad.
Here, with his team needing a goal, he had the chance to earn his adopted nation an improbable, historic and deserved point on their European Championship debut against the country of his birth.
For those brief few seconds, Gashi, along with the Albanian supporters in the stands, must’ve felt this goal was written in the stars. They had hung on and grown into the contest with 10 men and were on the brink of stealing a point. But for the presence of Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer, a custodian of great repute in the German Bundesliga, who stood up to make himself big and produce a magnificent, potentially campaign-defining save for his team.
That it even required Sommer’s late intervention to secure all three points summed up the story of a mixed afternoon for Switzerland. An afternoon in which they played with a man advantage for nearly an hour following Lorik Cana’s foolish handball (his second yellow card) but failed to assert their authority on their opponents.
The Swiss may have come away with all three points against plucky Albania but they found themselves caught in one of football’s vague traps: the struggle to play against 10 men.
In this, their opening fixture, coach Vladimir Petkovic’s side stayed entirely true to what was expected of them. A midfield, marshalled by Granit Xhaka, which gave the Swiss a leg to stand on. Marauding full-backs, in Stephen Lichtsteiner and Ricardo Rodriguez, who ventured forward from time to time. A suspect central defence, comprising Johan Djorou and Fabian Schar, which was caught out several times — but not punished.
An absolute struggle to put the ball in the back of the net with Haris Seferovic, the team’s main forward, continuing his astonishingly poor form all season long in Germany. A goal scored directly from a corner — the source of nearly one-third (29%) of Switzerland’s goals in qualifying. An established goalkeeper who came to the team’s rescue. And finally, the ability to somehow do enough by the end of it all — a la their troubled qualifying campaign.
This was vintage Switzerland, the European in-betweeners. They started like a team that meant business, dominating possession in the early stages and scoring through Schar’s header as early as the fifth minute, but finished like one which did not know how to close out games – the Swiss had won once in nine previous attempts at the European Championships.
Switzerland missed a whole host of chances to bury the game. Seferovic, who had scored just three times in 35 appearances for Eintracht Frankfurt in a dreadful last season, was guilty of missing most of them. He linked up well with Dzemaili to open up the Albanian defence in the first half but shot tamely at goalkeeper Etrit Berisha.
On another two occasions, he found space on the left side of the penalty area but shot straight at the goalkeeper, who saved smartly both times.
In the second half, Seferovic found himself clean through on goal but failed to beat an onrushing Berisha in a one-on-one situation — a moment that would’ve settled the game.
If there were question marks over his form coming into the Euros, they’ll certainly be magnified now. He was the least involved (30 touches) among the Swiss starters, which begs the question: if he doesn’t score, what else can he offer on the pitch? He is fortunate that his team did not have to pay for the missed opportunities. Unfortunately, Petkovic’s squad doesn’t have reliable goal-scoring alternatives.
Meanwhile, the star-studded midfield somewhat lived up to its billing. The coach would probably have expected more control from them in an 11-vs-10 affair. Xhaka, Dzemaili and Xherdan Shaqiri created no less than eight chances between them. Xhaka, with most no. of passes (115), touches (127) and joint-highest number of chances created (3) in the game, was the team’s main man. He kept Switzerland’s play ticking over in the centre of the park.
Both Djourou and Schar — especially the former — were caught out multiple times by the link-up play between Albania’s full-back Elseid Hysaj and forward Armando Sadiku. But the latter failed to convert two glorious chances. That the Swiss did not concede a goal was down to Albania’s poor finishing — and Sommer’s exceptional goalkeeping — rather than due to the resistance put up by Petkovic’s men.
It turned out to be a tough opening game for Switzerland and the ones that immediately follow — against Romania and France — aren’t going to be any easier. While Petkovic and his players have three points in the bag, they will leave the city of Lens with plenty to ponder.
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