It seems odd that it should be Switzerland, the neutral beauty spot of Europe, who have courted the only major political controversy so far of a World Cup in Russia.
The talk ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Costa Rica, the one to decide Switzerland’s fate at these finals, was dominated by the fines given to Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka for their inflammatory celebrations against Serbia. The eagle emblem of Albania’s flag has never been more widely scrutinised. Indeed, it was a topic that threatened to disrupt harmony between fans and players and distract them from their goal of getting to the knockout phase.
Valon Behrami insisted a World Cup was “not the time” to discuss that particular political issue and, to be honest, he was right. He was also right when he said Switzerland’s team spirit has never been stronger. It just got them into the next round.
The surprisingly gripping 2-2 draw was a night where Switzerland’s key components, Xhaka and Shaqiri, the men who stole the show for good and bad against Serbia, reverted to more ‘classical’ performances in their own unique styles.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 27, 2018
Shaqiri was tasked with creating “organised chaos” by coach Vladimir Petkovic and he certainly did that. At times dazzling, at others downright infuriating, every Swiss attack came through him, and there it often stopped.
Xhaka, meanwhile, was the player Arsenal fans know only too well. He pinged passes to all four corners of the pitch at will from the base of midfield but, when it came to tracking runs through the middle, he mostly decided it was perfectly acceptable to leave a five-on-two in Costa Rica’s favour to his centre-backs.
Yann Sommer’s brilliance meant that, for the most part, it was. Willy Caballero and even David de Gea have had goalkeeping nightmares in Russia, but Sommer made a handful of top-class saves to keep Costa Rica at bay, one of which, an agile clawing of the ball following Celso Borges’ header, could well be the save of the tournament. The fact he conceded an own goal at the death was borderline cruelty.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 27, 2018
Sommer could also do nothing to keep out Kendall Waston’s towering header, Costa Rica’s first goal at a World Cup since Bryan Ruiz against Greece in the last 16 four years ago, but that was the cue for this redoubtable team spirit Behrami was at pains to point out to come through.
Costa Rica’s fans outnumbered the Swiss in the stands and seemed to be the team of choice for the many thousands of Russians in attendance, and they were roared on in their quest for a win. But Switzerland regrouped, refocused and refused to panic, just as they did when all seemed lost against Brazil and Serbia in matches one and two.
And, once again, they got the result they needed. Josip Drmic finished a beautiful passing move to make sure of that, even if they did let victory slip with a strange determination to concede a late penalty. Thankfully for them, Brazil had got the job done against Serbia anyway.
They will meet Sweden in the next round and will fancy their chances there. Looking beyond the quarter-finals might be optimistic, given their relative lack of depth and goalscoring concerns, but the spirit that has carried them this far does indeed seem largely unmatched. For that, they deserve to be in Russia, putting politics to one side, for a little longer.
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