The Swiss have high hopes for the “Nati”, their national team, when they kick off their European Championships campaign against Albania later today. Reaching the quarter finals is apparently the aim. Can they do it? Well, that depends on the 11 men in red on the pitch. For those that aren’t familiar with the Swiss squad, here are the lads carrying the weight of this small nation on their shoulders:
Goalkeeper: Yann Sommer (above)
The safest hands in Switzerland? Absolutely. The former Basel stopper has a reputation for reliability. He has replaced long-standing keeper Diego Benaglio in the Swiss lineup with relative ease, just as he filled the filled the void at Borussia Mönchengladbach when Marc-Andre Ter Stegen left for Barcelona. A good communicator, if he feels the Swiss back line aren’t giving him the right protection, they’ll know about it.
Right back: Stephan Lichtsteiner (c)
As captain, the first name on the team sheet. Stephan Lichtsteiner is one of the few players in the Swiss team whose calibre is undisputed. A key part of the Juventus team that has won five Italian titles in a row, and with 80 caps for the Swiss, he brings experience and quality. He also has a hell of an engine. Watch for him bombing down the touchline all game and then somehow still have the puff to complain at a teammate. That’s the one thing that Lichtsteiner could be criticised for. Criticising. If things aren’t going his way we'll see finger pointing and dropped shoulders. Not what you want from your captain.
Centre half: Michael Lang
I was impressed the few times I watched Lang play for Grasshopper Club Zurich. He’s since moved on to greater things with Switzerland’s top team, FC Basel. Usually a right back, the untouchable Lichtsteiner forces him to slot in at centre half. That shouldn't be a problem for Lang, who has the physique to handle even the burliest striker. In Basel they call him “the machine.” Enough said.
Will be under pressure for his place from Basel's Fabian Schär.
Centre half: Johan Djourou
English fans will remember Djoruou as a young pretender to Tony Adams’ crown at Arsenal. It didn’t quite work out for him with the Gunners, but he has gone on to captain HSV Hamburg. Despite plenty of experience, questions have been asked about his composure and his health – he was most recently ruled out with a nasty virus. Djourou might well have lost his place to Norwich’s Timm Klose had Klose not suffered a knee ligament tear a short while ago. Probably the weak link in the Swiss defence. Fellow former gooner Philippe Senderos didn't make the squad.
Left back: Ricardo Rodriguez (above)
Rodriguez is the real deal. Has proven his class and a mental strength well beyond his 23 years in while playing for Wolfsburg, who reached the Champions League quarter finals this season. Didn’t have the best year for his club though, with off-field issues, including the death of his mother, probably the cause. Let’s hope a good Euros performance gives him something to cheer.
Right midfield: Valon Behrami
A fighter rather than a traditional fleet-of-foot right-sider, the Swiss love him for his never-say-die attitude. Nowhere was this better characterized than by his heroics at the last World Cup against Equador, where he won the ball in his own box with a last-ditch tackle before running halfway up the pitch, riding tackles and releasing Rodriquez to set up a Swiss winner. He didn’t really shine this season with Watford, but if he stays injury free he’ll be key for Switzerland.
Central midfield: Granit Xhaka (above)
Big things are expected of Xhaka at the Euros after he recently sealed a £30m move to Arsenal. Formerly the captain of Borussia Mönchengladbach, he will be called upon to pull the strings in the midfield, likely as a lone central midfielder. As you’d expect from a midfielder signed by Arsene Wenger, he has an eye for a pass and great technical talent. It will be interesting to see if he can rise to the occasion at the tournament in France. One of several members of the Swiss team to have Albanian heritage, his brother opted to play for Albania, and the two will line up against each other this afternoon – the first time siblings have competed against each other at a European Championships.
Left midfield: Admir Mehmedi
Bayer Leverkusen's Mehmedi was originally born in Macedonia, but grew up in Switzerland. Traditionally a striker, he tends to play more as a wide man for the national side, and has only scored four goals in 42 international appearances. He has a burst of pace though, and plenty of Bundesliga experience. One of the most underrated members of the Swiss side.
Right wing: Xherdan Shaqiri (above)
Switzerland’s star man, he’s the one plastered all over Zurich’s tram stops promoting soft drinks now the tournament is underway. The former Inter Milan and Bayern Munich forward's move to Stoke City this time last year raised a lot of eyebrows here, and prompting headlines like “Where the hell is Stoke?”. While Stoke might not be the glamorous destination the Swiss had in mind for their showboating attacker, he hardly played in Munich and the increase in game time with the Potters can only help his performances for the national team. A match winner on his day, as he showed a couple of times in the Premier League this season, the Swiss will rely on him for goals.
Centre forward: Haris Seferovic
When it comes to finding someone to lead the front line, Switzerland unfortunately have a dearth of options. They lack a target man entirely. Yet another Mönchengladbach star, Josip Drmic, would probably get the nod, but a knee injury has ruled him out of the tournament. That leaves coach Vladimir Petkovic to choose between Haris Seferovic and Eren Derdiyok. Derdiyok had the better goal ratio in the last club campaign, with 12 goals in 28 games for Kasimpasa Istanbul, but it looks as though Eintracht Frankfurt’s Seferovic will still be preferred. This despite the fact that he scored just 3 goals last season for Frankfurt, all coming before Christmas. In his favour is that he’s been the one finding the net in the Euro 2016 qualifying matches. If Seferovic doesn’t get on the scoresheet in the early rounds, Derdiyok can expect to be called upon.
Left wing: Breel Embolo (below)
This kid is exciting. Breel Embolo is just 19 and is already being touted as the “Swiss Pele”. An exaggeration? Probably. But he has looked super sharp for FC Basel in his big breakthrough season and has the skill and pace to make things happen. He has handled the pressure well in big games so far, and the exuberance of youth could be just what the Swiss attacking line needs to cause opposition defenders problems. Having reportedly already attracted the attentions of Europe’s biggest clubs, a good performance at Euro 2016 and Embolo could be coming to a Premier League club near you very soon.
While writing this post I realised that, on paper, the Swiss have a better team than I thought. They do have weak spots in key positions though, notably in central defence and in the main striker position. That said, if Djourou finds form and Shaqiri and co. up front can find the net, achieving that quarter final place is a real possibility. Hopp Schwiiz!
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.