While Switzerland has been an entertaining side at the World Cup, a lack of bodies on its backline could derail a bid for its first quarterfinal appearance in 64 years Monday when it faces Sweden in the round of 16 at St. Petersburg.
The Swiss finished second to Brazil in Group F, playing both the five-time champion and Costa Rica to draws around a last-minute emotionally charged 2-1 victory over Serbia. It is the first time since 1934 and 1938 Die Nati have qualified for the knockout round in back-to-back World Cups, though they did qualify in consecutive appearances in 1994 and 2006.
The 2-2 draw against the Ticos on Wednesday, however, came with a steep price as defenders Stephan Liechtsteiner and Fabian Schar both picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, ruling them out of this match. That leaves Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic with a selection headache as Die Nati try to reach the final eight for the first time since hosting the 1954 World Cup.
Offensively, there are no concerns as five different players had a goal in the three group matches, and the triumvirate of Xherdan Shaqiri, Blerim Dzemaili and Breel Embolo have created plenty of scoring chances. Shaqiri and Dzemaili each have a goal, while Shaqiri and Emolo each have an assist.
Sweden played its way atop Group E, regrouping from a heartbreaking last-second loss to defending champion Germany in emphatic fashion with a 3-0 thrashing of Mexico as both teams progressed at the expense of Die Mannschaft. Their stunning 2-0 loss to South Korea left the Blagult and El Tri on six points, and Sweden swung the goal difference enough in their favor versus Mexico to finish first.
A side once defined by the individual brilliance of Zlatan Ibrahimovic that lacked deep tournament runs has been replaced by a collective in which the sum is greater than its parts. Defender and captain Andreas Granqvist has twice converted from the spot, and late collapse versus Germany aside, Sweden has been the better team for large portions of its three matches against Russia.
The Blagult have not been to the quarterfinals since their surprising third-place finish in the United States in 1994. They have reached the knockout round in their last four World Cup appearances but made exits at this point in their last two showings, falling to Senegal in 2002 and host Germany four years later.
HOW THEY GOT HERE
June 18 — Sweden 1, South Korea 0 (Granqvist 65′ (PK))
June 23 — Sweden 1, Germany 2 (Toivonen 32, Reus 48, Kroos 90+5′)
June 27 — Sweden 3, Mexico 0 (Augustinsson 50′, Granqvist 62′ (PK), Alvarez 74′ (og))
June 17 — Switzerland 1, Brazil 1 (Coutinho 20′, Zuber 50′)
June 22 — Switzerland 2, Serbia 1 (Mitrovic 5, Xhaka 52′, Shaqiri 90′)
June 27 — Switzerland 2, Costa Rica 2 (Dzemaili 31′, Waston 56′, Drmic 88′, Sommer 90+3′ (og))
For Sweden, manager Janne Andersson will be forced into one change since midfielder Sebastian Larsson has to serve a one-match ban for his two yellow cards accrued in group play. Gustav Svensson, who replaced Larsson as an injury substitute versus Mexico is the most likely option in replacement since Jimmy Durmaz is best utilized on he flank.
Andersson’s lone change in the three group matches was inserting Victor Lindelof for Pontus Jansson after the Blagult’s 1-0 victory over South Korea. Three players — midfielders Viktor Claesson, Albin Ekdal and defender Mikael Lustig — are on yellow cards.
Switzerland’s two changes on the back line will both be on the right side. Veteran Johan Djourou, who has 74 international appearances and was on the 2006 World Cup squad, is expected to slot into Schar’s place and partner with Manuel Akanji in central defense.
The right back position could fall to Toulouse’s Francois Moubandje, but filling Lichtsteiner’s boots is a tall proposition. Moubandje has 18 caps for Die Nati, but this will be his first tournament action after being an unused substitute at the European Championship in France two years ago.
Shaqiri, midfielder Valon Behrami and reserve Denis Zakaria would all miss the quarterfinals with a booking should Switzerland advance.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sweden — Emil Forsberg (MF)
Forsberg has yet to find the back of the net in Russia, but his pace cutting in from the left has created problems for opposing defenses as he has taken a team-high 12 shots for Sweden. Matched up against Switzerland’s new-look right side in the back, expect him to see plenty of the ball to test Djourou and Moubandje while opening space for Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen.
Switzerland — Xherdan Shaqiri
Shaqiri has done nothing to hurt his cause for a new contract in the Premier League with his play thus far, scoring one goal and nearly grabbing a second with a shot off the crossbar in addition to his assist. If he can get consistently forward and pin Ludwig Augustinsson deep on the left side and challenge Granqvist, that bodes well for Switzerland’s chances to advance.
WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD
While this is the first time the teams are meeting in a World Cup, they are no strangers to one another. They actually had to play a tie-breaking third match in qualifying for the 1962 World Cup that Switzerland won 2-1. Sweden, though, finished atop a three-team qualifying group 16 years later with a win and a draw head-to-head.
This is the first meeting since the teams played to a 1-1 draw in a 2002 friendly, and the all-time rivalry is tied after 27 matches — each side has 10 victories, and they have played seven draws.
Per Ladbrokes, Switzerland is a slim 8/5 favorite, while Sweden has 2/1 odds to advance. The odds of the match being settled on penalties after a draw has squeezed between the teams at 15/8.
Berg is the top option for a first goal-scorer at 5-1 odds, though the Swiss have the next four options in Josip Drmic (11/2) followed by Shaqiri, Haris Seforovic and Mario Gavranovic at 6/1.
Not much separates these teams as the slight edge Switzerland may have in attack is somewhat canceled by lacking two starting defenders. While Berg has not scored, he has been a handful in the last two matches and teamed well with Toivonen up front.
On opposite flanks, Forsberg and Shaqiri will look to wreak havoc, with Swiss running partners Embolo and Dzemaili trying to pick apart that Swedish back four. This match may come down to the keepers, and while Yann Sommer has yet to post a clean sheet and gave up two goals to previously scoreless Costa Rica, he did have one of the best half-hours of the World Cup with a series of first-class saves to keep Switzerland in contention early.
Swedish counterpart Robin Olsen has two clean sheets, and one of the two goals he conceded was a world-class strike on an indirect kick from Germany’s Toni Kroos. Otherwise, the Blagult have been fairly rigid in defense. While they don’t do anything flashy like Ibrahimovic did in years past, no one can argue they lack effectiveness.
It would not be surprising to see this be the first match to go to extra time in the knockout round before Sweden finally emerges with a victory and extends Switzerland’s quarterfinal drought at least another four years.
Prediction: Sweden 2, Switzerland 1 a.e.t.
The winner of this match will play the winner of the Colombia-England match July 7 in Samara.