Euro 2016: Poland won the match but the game belonged to Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri

“Behave! Shot all day long, he does it to me in training!”

Jack Butland knew what he was saying. His Stoke teammate Xherdan Shaqiri had scored a magnificent goal against Everton last December. Running at nearly full speed, the Swiss playmaker chipped Tim Howard from the edge of the box without breaking stride. It was a goal that left the goalie flat footed. He had trusted Shaqiri to do the sensible thing. Take a moment to assess the situation, beat his marker and close the ball. But he did not make an allowance for Shaqiri’s brilliance.

 Euro 2016: Poland won the match but the game belonged to Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri

Xherdan Shaqiri's magnificent strike. AP

Alan Shearer and Ian Wright on TV, former England strikers who know a thing or two about scoring goals, reckoned Shaqiri meant to cross the ball. Butland was watching and he immediately took to Twitter for clearing the doubts. He knew what he was saying. He had seen Shaqiri’s brilliance from close quarters. The Swiss star could do things, things that were out of most footballers’ grasp.

"You don’t know me very well, obviously. I always score nice goals!” Shaqiri knows himself too, of course. Here he was answering a question on his brilliant strike against Poland in the round of 16 Euro match. Switzerland had just been knocked out on penalties, another failure to win a knockout match. The nation’s last win in a do-or-die contest at a major tournament had arrived in 1938 when it defeated Germany in a first-round replay for a quarterfinal spot. But Shaqiri’s strike could not be forgotten, not just yet.

Switzerland would have suffered its eventual defeat in 90 minutes if not for the playmaker’s brilliance. It was not just Shaqiri’s magnificent strike, it was his overall performance that stood out. The goal was the crowning glory, the display a ceremony that led to it.

Shaqiri had been under criticism for his performances in this tournament before the match against Poland. Some members of Swiss media had accused him of putting on too much weight during his time at Stoke. A couple of days before the match, his club teammate Philipp Wollscheid came to his defence. “He has always been one who has a strong and muscular physique,” remarked the defender. Shaqiri’s teammates know what they are saying. For they have seen his brilliance day-in, day-out.

The 24-year-old can occasionally give the impression that he carries a chunky figure. It’s his short stature, his drawn-out frame that seems to inhibit him. This is what made his goal so special on Saturday. But let’s wait before we discuss it. The cake needs to allow the main course to be consumed.

In the last 20 minutes or so in the previous match versus France, Shaqiri had moved into a central position. The positional shift allowed him to unfurl his range of passing. Suddenly, he was a live-wire. Springing balls to one corner and another, he created a few awkward moments for the French. It’s safe to assume Switzerland’s manager Vladimir Petkovic caught what was working.

Consequently, Shaqiri was tucked in centrally on Saturday. He started on the right but he kept a more narrow position. His teammates did not bring their best to the field against Poland, but he most certainly did. He ran with his characteristic squiggly movement, wiggling past defenders and releasing the ball with a measured touch. In the first half, a couple of his turns could have put a ballerina to shame. The delivery from his crosses also left little room for a complaint.

When his teammates failed to rouse themselves, Shaqiri took it upon himself to create something. Six minutes into the second half, he exchanged the ball a few times before launching on a run that ended with a left-footed biting strike on the Polish goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski’s gloves. Yet, the odd moment of wondrous turn or a pass aside, it was not happening for him yet. Switzerland was a goal down and defeat stared the side in the face.

With eight minutes to 90, Shaqiri sought the spectacular out. There was a sign that something extraordinary was afoot; right-back Stephan Lichtsteiner was on the opposite wing and put a cross in from the left. It was dealt with the customary equanimity that the Polish defence has displayed in this tournament. As the ball rose in the air, Shaqiri realised he was poorly placed. He took a few steps backward and lunged for it in full flight. There was little chance that he would connect with it well enough to power it on target, let alone beating the goalkeeper. But the swiftness of his reaction – mind you a player who was accused of letting himself go a bit by the media – was astounding. Like a crane, he picked the ball out and threw it towards the goal. The pace behind the volley left Fabianski with barely any time to get his hands to it. It escaped him at the corner of the left post.

When Shaqiri was at Bayern Munich, Pep Guardiola had come to regard him as his favourite substitute. For he could change games, like he did on Saturday. The equaliser pushed Shaqiri to accomplish more magical deeds on the pitch. But it was not to be. His attempted chip over Fabianski five minutes into extra time was the highlight of his decorative play thereafter. Shaqiri failed to hit it well enough; the show continued, without the pomp. Penalties arrived and he scored his with the confidence of a man who knew he was doing little wrong. Too bad his teammates failed to walk on the same plane as him. But then it’s not easy, is it?

Pop star Shakira was watching the game when Shaqiri scored that wonder strike. She instantly quipped on Twitter. "The first time in history that a couple both score goals in the Eurocup - Piqué and Shaquiri (sic)!!!” It was a personal tweet, yet the nature of the goal would have certainly not been wasted on her. Shakira, renowned for her bodily contortions, could appreciate Shaqiri’s physical adjustment in creating that work of wonder. The footballer’s thickset figure is far removed from Shakira’s voluptuous frame, yet both of them have a command over their body that associates them in a weird union.

It’s a shame that Shaqiri will not be seen again in this tournament. Goals have been rare and special strikes rarer. However, the guy who wears the number 23 for Switzerland walks out as his team’s number one star. If anybody still doubts his ability to make magic, they would be well-served by a helping of his latest delicacy.

Updated Date: Jun 26, 2016 09:06:08 IST



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