ST PETERSBURG: Switzerland have made headlines in Russia for their players’ controversial goal celebrations but the team stands on the verge of matching their best-ever run at a World Cup.
If Vladimir Petkovic’s side beat Sweden in St Petersburg on Tuesday, they will become the first Swiss team in 64 years to qualify for the quarter-finals of football’s biggest tournament.
Although they have largely gone under the radar in Russia — double-eagle scoring celebrations against Serbia aside against — the unheralded team are enjoying an impressive tournament.
Marshalled by skipper Stephan Lichtsteiner, driven by Valon Behrami’s energy, and able to call on Xherdan Shaqiri’s creativity, Switzerland emerged from a tricky Group E that included tournament favourites Brazil.
They are unbeaten in Russia, have scored in every game and a defeat against Portugal last October is the only blemish in an impressive run of results over the past two years.
Add in impressive goalkeeper Yann Sommer, who writes a gourmet food blog when not playing international football, and Switzerland are becoming a formidable unit.
“We want more and more,” Petkovic said after his team made the last 16. “We are used to making history, we have big ambitions and the next big ambition is to beat Sweden.”
The last time Switzerland reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup, in 1954, they were hosts and the 16-team tournament was a very different beast — they lost their last-eight clash to Austria 7-5 after being three up early on.
But as they look to match or even better that showing, there is a significant cloud on the horizon for the Sweden match.
Switzerland’s defence have excelled so far but will be without key defenders Lichtsteiner and Fabian Schaer against Sweden after both picked up two yellow cards in the group stage.
Between them, Arsenal new boy Lichtsteiner and Schaer have played more than 150 times for the country.
Lichtsteiner was one of three players who escaped with a fine — Shaqiri and Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka were the others — after their politically motivated celebrations in the 2-1 win against Serbia.
They celebrated goals with a pro-Kosovo double-eagle gesture. The symbol represents the Albanian flag and is viewed as a symbol of defiance in Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 in a move that Serbia still refuses to recognise.
Potential replacements for the Sweden game include another player with an Arsenal connection, Johan Djourou, and Sommer’s Borussia Moenchengladbach colleague, Michael Lang.
Petkovic said he had no regrets about picking the now-suspended pair for the final group game but the decision to pick Lichtsteiner and Schaer against Costa Rica when they were virtually assured of qualification may come under renewed scrutiny.
Switzerland and Sweden have not met since 2002 so there are recent no indications of who could have the edge on Tuesday.
Although the last-16 match is one of the least glamorous of the first knockout phase, it provides a good opportunity to qualify for the last eight in the ‘weaker side’ of the draw, and for Switzerland to re-write their World Cup history.
Like the Swiss, the Swedes have gone about their campaign with a brisk, businesslike efficiency, with their only blip coming in their last-minute 2-1 loss to Germany, which was bracketed by victories over South Korea and Mexico.
Both teams escaped the group stages with a minimum of fuss, scoring five goals each.
The goals have been spread around, with Swedish skipper Andreas Granqvist the only player on either team to have scored more than once in Russia, with both his goals coming from the penalty spot.
The group stages have shown that Sweden may be content to block the spaces in midfield without pressing too high and try to pinch a goal on the counter as they look to match or better their run to the semi-finals in 1994.
The plan will be to usher the Swiss down the wings and rely on their imposing centre backs Granqvist and Victor Lindelof to deal with any crosses into the box.
Sweden coach Janne Andersson’s admission that he has a list of penalty takers sorted in his mind before the match tells its own story, and given each team’s well-drilled defence, a penalty shootout is not beyond the realms of possibility.
While that might offend the purists, Sweden midfielder Albin Ekdal has already responded to criticism that his side are not the most easy on the eye.
“Who the hell cares?” he said. “We’re best at maximising. We can’t compete with France or Spain when it comes to skill on the ball, but luckily football is not decided by ‘tiki-taka’ passes.”
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2018