Switzerland are preparing for a decisive Euro 2012 qualifying match against Bulgaria this Saturday – not winning in Sofia would in practice mean the end of their campaign.
Both teams are in third place in Group G with three points, four adrift of England, who are looking to go top against bottom side Wales on Saturday. Meanwhile, current pool leaders Montenegro – on ten points – are out of action until June.
While qualification would still be mathematically possible following a defeat or draw, in practice Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld’s team has to win in the Bulgarian capital to stand any chance of finishing second and securing a precious play-off spot.
Hitzfeld will be hoping they can repeat Switzerland’s last successful trip to Sofia on May 1 1991 when Ueli Stielike’s team fought back for a last-gasp 3-2 win via a 90th-minute goal by Kubilay Türkyilmaz.
That win against a fearful Bulgarian team with stars like Emil Kostadinov and Krassimir Balakov helped launch the Swiss on their path to Euro 1992 in Sweden.
Like 20 years ago, Saturday’s game, which pits the former Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich coach against Bulgarian manager Lothar Matthäus, will most likely be a tense, nervy affair rather than tactical.
“Switzerland have been through difficult times during previous qualifying phases of tournaments. They have always managed to excel during decisive matches,” Pierre-André Schürmann, former trainer of Neuchâtel Xamax and the national junior teams, told swissinfo.ch.
Despite a poor start, Hitzfeld’s objective is still to qualify for Euro 2012. The German, who took over the Swiss side in 2008, was criticised during recent qualifying games, but won a vote of confidence in early March when the Swiss Football Association (SFA) extended his contract until 2014.
They build you up....
Hitzfeld remains philosophical about the criticism.
“Journalists sometimes build monuments which they can then tear down. Unfortunately I’m used to it,” he told the Swiss Sportinformation press agency.
For Schürmann the SFA’s decision was the right one. “The next two matches are not the only important ones coming up. The SFA works on a long-term basis and this kind of approach bears fruit as seen with the former Swiss coach Köbi Kuhn.”
He recalled that Switzerland had taken part in the last four big international football tournaments, which few countries can boast, but which also raises expectations.
“When we lose, we are compared with France, Spain and Italy, while we remain a small football nation,” he said.
Hitzfeld has also been trying to put matters straight. “Every qualifying phase for a European Championship or World Cup is a great performance. I am very ambitious and it’s clear that I hope to get the best results," he said.
"But I am also able to assess the true value of our team. We do not belong among the big football nations. Our current world ranking of 20th is already a fantastic achievement.”
Cause for concern
The Swiss team’s recent performance has been a cause for concern, however. After defeats against England and Montenegro, the Swiss beat Wales 4-1, but a goalless draw against Malta more than raised eyebrows.
“It was a friendly match. Switzerland never really do well in those kinds of games,” said Hitzfeld.
Schürmann echoed the Swiss coach. “Switzerland always have problems playing teams that are said to be weaker.”
Against Bulgaria Hitzfeld will have to do without several injured experienced players, such as goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and midfielders Tranquillo Barnetta and Xherdan Shaqiri.
Arsenal defender Johan Djourou, who dislocated his shoulder during the recent FA Cup defeat by Manchester United, is also sidelined.
In their place Hitzfeld has turned to Valon Behrami, Xavier Margairaz and Eren Derdiyok. Twenty-one-year-old FC Schalke 04 striker Mario Gavranović has also been given his first call-up to the Switzerland squad.
Schürmann said Switzerland’s main problem lies in the centre of the field.
“That’s where we need a leader. Players like Gökhan Inler or Hakan Yakin need to exert a much greater influence,” he said.
The former Xamax trainer remains hopeful, however.
“The national team is not packed with veterans. There’s plenty of young talent; Shaqiri, Stocker, Schwegler, Ziegler, Fernandes and Affolter will soon be joined by the young generation of players who won the U-17 World Cup in 2009. I am sure that this team will be full of surprises.”
Hitzfeld is also confident going into the Sofia game. “We are mentally strong. We have professional players who play abroad who know how to deal with pressure and a group of Basel FC players who start every game as favourites.”
Goalkeepers : Johnny Leoni, Germano Vailati, Marco Wölfli; Defenders: François Affolter, Stéphane Grichting, Stephan Lichtsteiner, Steve Von Bergen, Reto Ziegler; midfielders and forwards: Valon Behrami, Eren Derdiyok, Blerim Dzemaili, Gelson Fernandes, Alexander Frei, Mario Gavranovic, Gökhan Inler, Xavier Margairaz, Pirmin Schwegler, Xherdan Shaqiri, Valentin Stocker, Marco Streller, Hakan Yakin.
Goalkeepeers: Nikolay Mihaylov, Vladislav Stoyanov; Defenders: Stanislav Manolev, Ivan Bandalovski, Nikolay Bodurov, Ivan Ivanov, Kostadin Stoyanov, Petar Zanev, Rumen Trifonov. Midfielders: Vladimir Gadzhev, Boris Galchev, Blagoy Georgiev, Stanislav Angelov, Georgi Peev, Hristo Yanev, Stiliyan Petrov. Forwards: Spas Delev, Ivelin Popov, Zdravko Lazarov, Nikolay Dimitrov, Dimitar Makriev, Tsvetan Genkov.End of insertion
The nine group winners and the runner-up with the best record against the top five sides in their pool qualify directly for the final tournament. The eight remaining runners-up enter the play-offs.
Current Group G standing (matches played/wins/ draws/losses/goals for-against):
1. Montenegro 4 3 1 0 3 0 10
2. England 3 2 1 0 7 1 7
3. Switzerland 3 1 0 2 5 5 3
4. Bulgaria 3 1 0 2 1 5 3
5. Wales 3 0 0 3 1 6 0
Saturday March 26
Wales v England (16hrs)
Bulgaria v Switzerland (17.45hrs)
England v Switzerland
Switzerland v Bulgaria
Wales v Switzerland
Switzerland v MontenegroEnd of insertion
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