Verdict: Breel Embolo to score
Best odds: 1/1
Belarus and Switzerland begin their respecting campaigns within the Euro 2024 qualifications on Saturday, when they face each other in the opening round of Group I of the UEFA region. The group also contains Andorra, Israel, Kosovo and Romania.
Belarus are, of course, meant to be the hosts of the match, but they’ve been banned from organizing any international matches on their soil due to their support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There have been calls for them to be banned from taking part altogether, but FIFA are content with the limitations they’ve put in place.
Consequently, the game will be played at the Karadjordje Stadium in Novi Sad, Serbia, and visiting the country he feels strong political enmity towards will surely be motivation on one hand, and possibly distraction on the other, for one of the players representing Switzerland.
Due to his Albanian roots, Granit Xhaka has probably never celebrated a goal than the one he scored against Serbia at the 2018 World Cup, openly displaying an Albanian symbol to provoke the opposition further. The Arsenal midfielder also resorted to all sorts of provocative behaviour when the two sides met in Qatar at the end of last year.
The situation would’ve probably been the same for Xherdan Shaqiri, but the former Liverpool winger has withdrawn from the squad due to injury.
But back on a football pitch, Belarus haven’t played a competitive game since the end of the UEFA Nations League campaign, which they finished bottom of League C Group 3, behind the likes of Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Slovakia.
They did, however, play two friendly matches in the Middle East during the World Cup, beating Syria 0-1 and losing 2-0 to Oman. European coutries are mostly reluctant to engage in any friendly activities with Belarus at the moment, for obvious political reasons.
Despite the group not containing any real top teams, the hopes of Georgy Kondratyev and his men of successfully navigating their way through these qualifications are extremely slim.
A small minority of the 23-men squad plays outside Belarus or Russia, and not one of them plays in any of the top European leagues. On top of that, the squad Kondratyev has put together seriously lacks experience, with 31-year-old Hapoel Haifa defender Denis Polyakov the only member with more than 30 caps for his country.
Maksim Plotnikov will be the man between the posts, behind a back line of five consisting of Zakhar Volkov, Polyakov, Roman Yuzepchuk, Ruslan Khadarkevich and Vladislav Malkevich. Valery Bocherov, Yevgeny Yablonsky, Max Ebong and Vladislav Klimovich will line up in the middle of the park, with Uladzimir Khvashchynski, who hasn’t scored an international goal in almost a decade, the only man in attack.
As for Switzerland, they obviously went through their World Cup group very well and reached the round of 16, but there they were brutally destroyed by Portugal, conceding six and scoring just once. In the light of such embarrassment, there were rumours about coach Murat Yakin potentially facing the sack, but the country’s FA decided to stick with the Turkish tactician for the time being.
The Swiss did, on the other hand, beat Portugal in the Nations League, along with Spain and Czech Republic, but they still only managed to finish third in League A Group 2. Nonetheless, avoiding relegation to League B is probably deemed success enough at this point.
This will be the first match Switzerland plays since the World Cup, and Yakin will be looking to start his redemption straight away.
As has been said, Shaqiri will not be playing in this game through injury. The same goes for Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Gregor Kobel, Nice right-back Jordan Lotomba, and Basel striker Andi Zeqiri.
Yann Sommer, the long-standing Switzerland No. 1 who left Borussia Monchengladbach for Bayer Munich in January, will be between the posts. Manchester City’s Manuel Akanji will pair up with Gladbach’s Nico Elvedi in the heart of defence, flanked by Silvan Widmer of Mainz 05 and Ricardo Rodriguez of Torino. Nottingham Forest’s Remo Freuler will join Xhaka in the middle of the park, with Chelsea’s Denis Zakaria and Djibril Sow of Eintracht Frankfurt completing the section. RB Salzburg attacker Noah Okafor is expected to help AS Monaco’s Breel Embolo do the damage upfront.
Even if they enjoyed the comforts of playing at their own ground, the Dinamo National Olympic Stadium in Minsk, Belarus would have little chance of escaping defeat against Switzerland, and they probably have even less chance of doing so almost 1,000 miles away in Novi Sad.
You’d expect Embolo to find the back of the opposition net at least once.
Verdict: Breel Embolo to score
Best odds: 1/1
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