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Switzerland Nations League preview

Switzerland are very much late bloomers on the international stage, having gone 28 years without reaching a major tournament until between 1966 and 1994.

Now, they are regulars at summer spectacles, and regularly qualify in some style, boosting their coefficient score, keeping them positioned in the top ten international sides in the FIFA rankings.

In major tournament finals, however, there is still much work to be done. In the eight European Championship or World Cup finals they have qualified for since competing at USA 1994, Switzerland are yet to make it past the first knockout round. They have the talent and experience, now it is time to prove it on the big stage.

How they qualified

On the back of another round of 16 disappointment in the World Cup in Russia, Switzerland took out their frustrations on perennial overachievers Iceland as they thrashed their opponents 6-0 in their Nations League Group A2 opener in September, one of the biggest victories in the nation’s history.

Then came a narrow defeat in Belgium, but the performance was still encouraging, before they battled to a hard-fought win over Iceland in Reykjavik, setting up a winner-takes-all clash with Belgium in Lucerne for a place in the inaugural Nations League finals.

The contest got off to an awful start, as Thorgan Hazard, brother of Eden, scored twice to put Belgium in front, but the Swiss benefitted from a generous penalty call to get back into the match, before the real comeback commenced.

Three goals in 17 first-half minutes turned the match on its head, much to the shock of all in attendance in Lucerne, before two further strikes after the break completed a stunning 5-2 victory over one of the best sides in world football to once again qualify for a tournament finals.

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Key men

Two familiar faces in the Premier League remain a huge part of everything that has been good about Switzerland in recent years.

Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri is the playmaker extraordinaire in the Swiss ranks, deployed very much in the No 10 and, while he remains very much on the periphery at Anfield, he is the first name on the teamsheet for his country.

Granit Xhaka is another who has not had the greatest of seasons in the Premier League with Arsenal, and receives plenty of unwarranted criticism from own fans for some of his performances, but for his country, he is the heartbeat of the system, everything goes through Xhaka, while offering excellent protection for the defence.

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Further forward, we are now finally starting to see the very best of striker Haris Seferovic, who at the age of 27, is hitting top gear.

Seferovic helped himself to a stunning hat-trick in the win over Belgium, and, having produced reasonably meagre results in front of goal until now, scored double the amount of goals for his country in 2018 than any other year, while plundering 25 goals for Benfica in 2018/19 – again more than double his best tally for any season.

At the back, Fabian Schar has become well known in the Premier League for his solid performances for Newcastle, but for his country, such form is nothing new, as he nears a half-century of caps, with Manuel Ankaji, whose reputation is soaring at Borussia Dortmund, alongside him.

One to watch – Kevin Mbabu

Remember him, Newcastle fans? Even the most ardent Newcastle will struggle to pinpoint Kevin Mbabu’s three-year spell at the club as a youngster, where he made just five senior appearances before an equally unsuccessful spell with Rangers in Scotland.

A return home seemed inevitable, with Newcastle boss Rafa Benitez sending Mbabu on loan to Young Boys in Bern and, from that point, the only way has been up for this talented full-back.

Mbabu helped Young Boys pick up their first Swiss top flight title in 32 years in 2017/18, with Mbabu named Swiss Super League Player of the Year, before then helping his side retain their title this season at an absolute canter.

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A first international call-up came last September, and Mbabu has not looked back, making right-back or right wing-back, his own, keeping captain Stephan Lichtsteiner out of the side.

His form has earned him a move to the Bundesliga with Wolfsburg, who he will join in the summer. His rise is unlikely to stop there.

The manager

Having steered Lazio to the 2013 Coppa Italia, Bosnian Vladimir Petkovic was approached to become the Swiss national team manager, having already coached a succession of Swiss club sides, with it announced Petkovic would succeed Ottmar Hitzfeld after the 2014 World Cup.

Lazio were not happy, with a legal dispute still ongoing, but it has not distracted Petkovic from his job, as he instilled real resilience in his side, ensuring Switzerland consistently compete with the very best.

Qualification for Euro 2016 came with ease, finishing second in their qualification group behind England, a tournament they again went out of at the round of 16 stage, before nine wins out of ten in qualification for the World Cup in Russia was not enough for automatic qualification.

One they had disposed of Northern Ireland in the play-off, they headed to Russia, where they again fell at the first knockout round, narrowly. Petkovic’s job now is to turn their incredible from in qualification into results on the big stage.

Having worked with many of this group of players for some time, Petkovic knows his personal better than most, and thus switches a 3-5-2, 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, with Petkovic trying to eek every inch from his side. That heightened knowledge of each member of his squad could be key to finally going that step further.

Expert view – Oliver Zesiger

Football Manager Co-Head Researcher for Switzerland

The Swiss enjoy having the ball and build-up patiently through Schar, Akanji and Xhaka. Shaqiri's role has changed. He played on the right wing most of the time until the World Cup. Since then, he is more often played as a 10, where he enjoys more freedom and space.

Granit Xhaka

While it may not show statistically, he is more present in the Swiss side than before. He is key in creating chances for himself and others. Without him, the Petkovic will almost certainly play a 4-3-3 or a 3-5-2, a formation that doesn't rely on a pure No 10. If he's fit, I expect us to play a 4-2-3-1, with Steven Zuber on the left, cutting inside, and Breel Embolo on the right, playing a more wing-oriented role.

Reaching the final four is already a minor achievement, but the team is in it to win it. I'm sure the players believe they can win the inaugural edition of the Nations League. Having to play Portugal at their home in the first game is not easy, but if the team somehow manages to beat them, everything's possible.

I think very few expected the team to reach the Final Four, so if we finish fourth, nobody should be disappointed either.

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