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World Cup Qualifying Review + Northern Ireland

Image result for portugal 2-0 switzerland

The dust has settled on Switzerland’s World Cup qualifying campaign for Russia 2018. More than a week has passed since a 2-0 defeat in Lisbon that consigned the Swiss to a play-off in November which they have since learned will be contested with Northern Ireland. The final chance to earn one of the 32 golden tickets to Moscow, Sochi, Yekaterinburg and beyond.

It is time now though to reflect on that qualifying campaign for Switzerland. Everything that went right and ultimately the very little that went wrong before the focus turns to Northern Ireland who are very much on the horizon. Can Switzerland finish the job and claim a place next summer or will all the hard work count for nothing and the Swiss be forced to watch from the sidelines in Basel, Zurich and St. Gallen rather than in the stands in Samara, Saransk and St. Petersburg?

tableUnfortunately, Wikipedia definitely got this table correct.

It wasn’t the hardest group, that was for sure, but it certainly didn’t look like it would be easy either. Switzerland knew the Faroe Islands and Andorra would pose very few problems and probably suspected the same of Latvia too other than a potential banana skin in Riga but in Hungary, they had a side they would’ve felt was their biggest challenge for the play-off spot and with Portugal, the recently crowned European champions, they probably expected Ronaldo to lead them to automatic qualification.

In the end, most things proved to be correct. Ronaldo scored the most goals, the Faroes, Andorra and Latvia provided little threat to Switzerland despite the Faroes posting their best ever finish in a World Cup qualifying group and Andorra claiming a historic win over Hungary, a side that provided the biggest surprise of all by not really being a threat at all either. It was all far too easy but in the end, not easy enough.

It began for Switzerland in Basel on September 6th with the Ronaldo-less Portuguese in town. The delirium soon followed as Switzerland’s fabulous performance ensured a 2-0 victory at St. Jakob-Park after two goals in six minutes from Breel Embolo & Admir Mehmedi. It was a perfect start and it would soon go on and on. It was a word that Switzerland would hear often in the 13 months that followed.

Just one month later, a trip to Budapest was the next task. Hungary had laboured to a draw in Torshavn in their opening match vs. the Faroes and the Swiss had a chance to move out of sight already and it was a chance they took, even if they did leave it late. Switzerland led twice through Seferovic and Rodriguez but were pegged back both times by Adam Szalai before a crucial Valentin Stocker strike to seal the points and send them six points clear of their opponents.

Their toughest test outwith Portugal had been dealt with and already the view seemed to be that the final matchday in Lisbon between the top two in the group would prove decisive. Switzerland followed up their Hungary victory just three days later with goals from Schar and Mehmedi ensuring a 2-1 victory over Andorra despite the scoring of a late consolation goal in the principality.

Victories over the minnows of the gtoup followed with the Faroes twice, Latvia twice and Andorra again all beaten without Switzerland conceding a single goal. It was quite a remarkable run that saw them earn seven clean sheets in a row along with ten victories in all fixtures, which also included a home friendly vs. Belarus. Switzerland had a 14-game unbeaten streak between 2012 and the end of 2013, but they had never won so many games in a row, which at that point, stood at 9.

They would make it 10 vs. Hungary in Basel. The venue in which their incredible run began bore witness to a commanding and confident finale to their home qualifiers as they thrashed Hungary by a 5-2 scoreline. It was set up as the precursor to the match in Lisbon just a few days later to decide the group and the Swiss delivered in style. Xhaka, Frei and Lichtsteiner all grabbed a goal while Zuber helped himself to a brace to keep Switzerland perfect and on top in Group B.

We all know what happened next. One of the biggest matches in Swiss football history and after 9 games, 27 points and 23 goals, it all came down to one big cup final vs. the Portuguese on their own patch. It seemed inevitable that it would come down to that fixture to decide it all and after Portugal took the lead through an own goal on the 41st minute, it seemed inevitable too that it would be Portugal taking the top spot.

Andre Silva secured it with his strike in the second half. It was poor, disjointed and lacking every quality that Switzerland had shown throughout the group. It was the worst time to put in their worst performance and they missed out on top spot, on goal difference, as a result.

It is hard to say Switzerland’s campaign was a failure. That sort of points tally, some of those performances and the run of ten victories in a row suggest otherwise, but in the end, it wasn’t enough. Portugal scored more goals, yes, but they also won just as many games as Switzerland in the end and deserved to top the group. A bitter pill to swallow though for sure and Switzerland, after leading the way for over a year, now have to focus on two huge matches in November to see them on a flight to Russia next year.

Shirt badge/Association crest

So, Northern Ireland it is.

Switzerland may have been seeded ensuring they avoided Italy but with Sweden lurking in the unseeded section, it may have been a lot worse. This is a draw that Switzerland will be content with and they will very much fancy their chances, especially with the first leg in Belfast and the chance to complete the job in their happy-hunting ground of Basel just a few days later.

That is not to discount Northern Ireland. Star players, household names, they have not. What they do have though is spirit and desire in abundance. This is a side of players that play in the lower leagues of England and for mid-table sides in Scotland. Four of their players do ply their trade in the Premier League, three of which come from West Brom and the captain, Steven Davis, at Southampton. They probably have no right to be doing anywhere near as well as they have been but that is a testament to the fantastic job done at Windsor Park by Michael O’Neil and his group of players.

Some say they had two relatively easy groups, outwith Germany, for the last two major tournaments. Czech Republic and Norway seem to be in transition while their European Championship qualifying group had no powerhouses either, but they still went out and earned their place. Four defeats over 20 qualifying campaigns is no mean feat, especially when you consider that two were vs. Germany who would top the group without a single blemish.

It is also worth noting that this is a side that not so long ago had won just 3 matches in 42 games. They were regularly on the end of embarrassing results to the likes of Luxembourg, Malta, Estonia and the Faroe Islands. The personnel may not have changed much but Michael O’Neil has instilled some real belief into this squad and they will be taking to the field in Belfast and travelling to Basel convinced that they can eliminate Switzerland and take their place at a World Cup for the first time since 1986.

That being said, Switzerland can make their own kind of history. If they win this two-legged encounter then they will qualify for their fourth consecutive World Cup, something they have never done before. I expect them to do so and failure to do so would be a huge disappointment, especially after the performance in the first round of qualifying, but I’m sure Northern Ireland have other ideas.

Both countries will be counting down the days until the November clash. Northern Ireland aren’t quite used to being this close to a World Cup while Switzerland are just desperate to punch their ticket after a rollercoaster Group Stage.

November will settle it once and for all.

Image result for st. jakob-park
St. Jakob-Park will, perhaps crucially, host the second leg.
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