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Switzerland seeks to recapture consistent form

Switzerland seeks to recapture consistent form

A steady though seldom thrilling team, Switzerland will arrive at the World Cup in South Africa looking for the consistency that carried it through qualifying after a dismal start.
The team blew a two-goal lead in Israel and then was embarrassed in a 2-1 loss at home to 152nd-ranked Luxembourg before reeling off an eight-match unbeaten streak to win its group.
Switzerland coach Ottmar Hitzfeld built his team on solid virtues: An unselfish, energetic unit with a strong core that could go deep into the tournament.
Still, Swiss confidence has dimmed since the country reached a second straight World Cup last October. Two tame home losses have followed qualification, and captain Alex Frei has missed playing time after breaking his right arm in a Swiss League match on Feb. 20.
Hitzfeld is determined to see the upside of Switzerland's 40-goal record scorer being sidelined until late in the season.
"Maybe he'll benefit then from not being exhausted," the veteran German coach said. "With three, four matches and a good preparation, Alex will surely be in top form at the World Cup."
Frei, who oozes self-belief, says he has done this before.
"Before the World Cup in 2006 I also had only one competitive match as preparation," the 30-year-old forward said. "Despite that, I then had a good World Cup."
Four years ago, Frei scored in 2-0 victories over Togo and South Korea as Switzerland topped a group that included eventual runner-up France. But they exited the second round after a notoriously dull goalless game against Ukraine that still causes fans anguish.
Late in extra time, expert penalty-taker Frei was substituted by coach Koebi Kuhn _ and then watched three teammates fail to score from the spot as Ukraine won the shootout 3-0.
Frei's next major tournament also ended unhappily when he was injured before halftime in the opening match of the 2008 European Championship against the Czech Republic.
Co-host Switzerland was the first team eliminated and Kuhn entered his planned retirement tagged as an underachiever with a talented pool of players.
The case of revitalized Stephane Grichting supports that view. Grichting was a fringe player for Kuhn but a rock for Hitzfeld, adapting to a string of partners in central defense as varying form and fitness handed the role to Johan Djourou, Philippe Senderos, Mario Eggimann and Steve von Bergen.
It was fitting that Grichting scored an 83rd-minute header against Greece to key Switzerland's 2-0 win that seized the group lead for good last September.
The spine that stiffens Hitzfeld's lineup is completed by goalkeeper Diego Benaglio and midfielder Gokhan Inler, who both have potential to be breakout stars in South Africa.
The 26-year-old Benaglio has gained Champions League experience with German club Wolfsburg in a season when Hitzfeld asked his players to take more responsible roles.
Young forwards Tranquillo Barnetta and Eren Derdiyok have since delivered excellent seasons for Bundesliga contender Bayer Leverkusen.
"Every goal that a Swiss striker scores in the Bundesliga makes me optimistic," said Hitzfeld, a former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund coach.
Barnetta seems set on the left wing _ complemented by hard-running Valon Behrami on the right _ with Derdiyok and veteran Hakan Yakin likely to be used as impact substitutes when the 35-year-old Blaise Nkufo fades late in games.
Hitzfeld has also tried new young players, including 18-year-old Xherdan Shaqiri, in recent home losses against Norway and Uruguay. Yet he will surely turn to tested and trusted talent to carry out his disciplined tactics when it matters.
He has two warm-up matches on home soil in June, against Costa Rica and Italy, who offer similar playing styles to group opponents Honduras and Spain. Chile is also in Group H.
"Now we are with the best teams in the world," Hitzfeld said.


Updated : 2021-03-09 16:22 GMT+08:00