They said all roads would lead to Lisbon and in the end, they have. There have been times it looked like it may not be that way, when Switzerland scored late on to win in Budapest or perhaps, for the most foolhardy Switzerland fan, when Andorra were holding Portugal to a 0-0 draw in the penultimate matchday after an hour while the Swiss were cruising to victory over Hungary but in truth, it rarely looked like this group would end any other way. It all comes down to this in the City of Light, one almighty World Cup prize is the reward for whomever can see out their respective duties in the Estadio da Luz. Portugal must win, Switzerland need only draw but something tells me in this ancient city on Tuesday evening, it won’t quite be that simple for either.
This time last year, Portugal were still on a high from their victory in the European Championships in France. Four months after that triumph in Saint-Denis, this was a country still euphoric after their first major tournament victory. It certainly eclipsed their only other tournament win, the unheralded SkyDome Cup, won in 1995, didn’t quite carry the same prestige or notoriety that UEFA’s premier international competition did in France in 2016, not by a long shot. Yet still, in 2017, the Portuguese are in danger of missing out on their next major tournament altogether with the uncertainty of a two-legged play-off looming if they cannot win when their Swiss visitors come to call.
This though, is not unfamiliar territory for Portugal. They have previous for that play-off after contesting one for the 2014 World Cup vs. Sweden the last time around in a contest that was more about Ronaldo vs. Ibrahimovic as the two talisman tried to drag their countries to Brazil. In the end, it was Ronaldo that triumphed along with his nation after his five goals over the two matches. A thrilling and jubilant conclusion but one that they would rather not face again. A victory in the capital will ensure their journey to Russia is booked in a slightly more relaxed manner.
Portugal would not have this any other way now. After 9 matches, 8 wins, 30 goals, just 2 conceded and 24 points, the sort of tally that would probably win any other group, they have Switzerland in Lisbon with the objective clear. They do not need to rely on anyone else to do them a favour and they have Cristiano Ronaldo of course.
Switzerland aren’t coming to Lisbon to hand Portugal their World Cup ticket though, not by any means. This is a side that has been perfect all the way. 9 wins and 27 points later, the job is remarkably still not finished. It is hoped that it will be on Tuesday with the Swiss needing just that single point to secure their place in Russia and considering this is a side that has not lost a World Cup qualifier, home or away, since a 2008 defeat to Luxembourg, there will be plenty of belief in their camp. Just two defeats in their last forty-one World Cup qualifiers is a record that speaks for itself and is maybe more of a warning of how difficult it may be for Portugal to get the win they require rather than how Switzerland will find it just trying to earn the draw.
It has been clear to see that this group has been close all the way. If roles were reversed on Matchday 1 and Portugal hosted Switzerland, it so easily could’ve went the same way, with both sides picking up maximum points before a crunch decider that would’ve seen Switzerland needing to win and Portugal coming for a point. That is why both sides deserve to be at the World Cup, that is why whomever receives the World Cup spoils on Tuesday will have been sufficiently rewarded for their efforts. It will be cruel misfortune for the side that has to negotiate a two-legged play-off and a journey to somewhere else in Europe but these are the breaks at this elite level of football.
It would certainly seem harsher on Switzerland, having led the way for all of the way but credit has to be given to Portugal for keeping right on their tail. Anything Switzerland did, they matched and have given themselves every chance. They cannot be ruled out at home, they are the European Champions after all and they do have one of the best players in the world who has a tendency to rise to these sorts of occasions, just like he did in 2013 in Solna.
Switzerland have a better head-to-head record vs. Portugal over the years, they are a country that has won and drawn on their travels against that opposition. They are a side that, as mentioned, do not do losing in these qualifying matches. For Switzerland not to make it to Russia, they would have to lose on the road in a qualifier for the first time since 2005. All of this though, won’t matter when the whistle blows at Benfica’s Stadium of Light on Tuesday. Perhaps the omens are good but this is simply like a cup final now and the Swiss have to be at their best to repel a certain Portuguese onslaught inside a colossal arena hosting a baying Lisbon throng.
To fail at this stage would be a hard one to take. Switzerland have a group of players, playing some beautiful football, enjoying playing together and on the cusp of making history as the national side looks to qualify for a fourth successive World Cup, something that they have never accomplished before. In truth, Switzerland may never be better placed to go away to Portugal and get a result and while no one will be comfortable saying they expect it go that way, their will be plenty of hope and a country glued to the action as Group B comes to a close.
It is not draw-or-bust for Switzerland. The fall-back of the play-offs can still earn a place in Russia next year but nobody wants to go through that. Not the fans of the national team, the manager or the players. Portugal though, will be feeling exactly the same and that is why Tuesday evening will be a fascinating occasion but only a memorable one for one of those sides, one of those sets of fans and for that team’s manager and players.
The talking is finished. The action is soon to begin. It is one of the biggest games in Swiss football history. It is the chance to make history and to do so in one of the most historic cities in the world.
Let’s only hope that they go and do it.