Switzerland closed in on EURO 2020 qualification with a crucial win on Thursday night, as they beat Georgia 1-0 in St. Gallen.
The Schweizer Nati kicked off the game in full swing, threatening their opposition with a flurry of chances in the opening 10 minutes. Georgia goalkeeper Giorgi Loria was tested right from the first whistle, with Ruben Vargas and Albian Ajeti having efforts on goal.
Denis Zakaria, Ricardo Rodríguez and Renato Steffen called Loria into action, forcing into some decent saves inside the opening 15 minutes. Switzerland were in cruise control down the right flank, but couldn’t find the finishing touch to take the lead.
It didn’t look as if Georgia would get close to the Swiss goal, but as the game went on they began to settle down and hit their stride. Giorgi Kvilitaia broke into the six-yard box against the run of play, and was desperately unlucky as his poked shot came off the post.
Switzerland missed their chance to capitalise on their first-half dominance, as Manuel Akanji’s header was too weak to trouble Georgia. Their presence in the final third didn’t falter after the restart, but their failure to break the deadlock meant the game opened up for Georgia.
The visitors came closer and closer to snatching a shock lead, with Levan Shengelia missing a string of excellent chances. The Crusaders continued to fight on and look for a goal, as their confidence grew and chances increased as the game progressed.
With the game seemingly ending for a stalemate, Switzerland snatched the win with 13 minutes to go. The ball was nicely worked out to Zakaria, who whipped it over to the far post where substitute Cedric Itten guided his header into the bottom corner. It was his first goal in his first cap for the Nati, as his strike wrapped up a crucial three points.
It was supposed to be a routine win for Switzerland, who had won the reverse fixture 2-0 in Tbilisi eight months ago. They could’ve scored four or five goals in the opening half hour alone, with Stephan Lichtsteiner bombing down the right wing time after time.
The Swiss started full of life and energy, moving the ball well and creating some good chances. Yet it’s hard to understand why they didn’t find the needed breakthrough before the break. To an extent, they were unlucky not to score, but on the other hand they were wasteful and didn’t have that cutting edge to score.
The absence of Switzerland’s regular quartet proved costly, as the lack of creativity from Xherdan Shaqiri and finishing from Haris Seferović was evident for Vladimir Petković’s side. The Nati seemed to get tired and lose motivation, but it was an intelligent injection of life through Cedric Itten that did the job.
Six minutes after coming on for his international debut at his home stadium, the 22 year-old rose highest to break the deadlock with a wonderful header. His burst of energy and drive was exactly what the Swiss needed to seal the win, though it was far from perfect.
While it was difficult to break down a stubborn yet solid Georgian defence, Switzerland were lacklustre at times. It was concerning to see how much they struggled at times to get shots away or even threaten the opposition goal, and there were large periods of the game where passing was unimaginative and sloppy.
Switzerland got the job done and secured the three points, but that wasn’t without a real fight and a late stroke of tactical genius from Petković. If the Swiss want to compete with the world’s finest, they need to find that ability to have that cutting edge, sweep aside the smaller teams and prove themselves in the face of the best nations in the world.
Along with matchwinner Itten, Ruben Vargas had a very impressive full debut on Friday. While his inexperience was evident on occasions, his energy and skills was crucial for the Schweizer Nati, and he was outstanding all night long.
Stephan Lichtsteiner and Granit Xhaka also put in excellent displays, working non-stop throughout the game and dictating the game in their respective positions. Lichtsteiner’s energy and crossing down the right wing was a superb sight to see, while Xhaka’s passing was exemplary and helped control the game.
Georgia also deserve credit for holding on so long, and threatening Switzerland as the game went on. They definitely showed some positive signs that they can play, but it was their lack of clinicality and late lapse of concentration that saw the Crusaders conquered.
NATI PLAYER RATINGS
(Out of 10)
Nati Man of the Match: GRANIT XHAKA
Yann SOMMER: 7
Ricardo RODRÍGUEZ: 6
Manuel AKANJI: 6
Nico ELVEDI: 6
Stephan LICHTSTEINER: 7
Granit XHAKA: 7*
Denis ZAKARIA: 6
Renato STEFFEN: 5
Edimilson FERNANDES: 6
Albian AJETI: 6
Ruben VARGAS: 6
Cedric ITTEN: 7
Christian FASSNACHT: 6
Djibril SOW: N/A
Switzerland needed to win to keep their qualification hopes alive and kicking, and they did exactly that. As expected, Denmark cruised past Gibraltar on Friday night, meaning that we are set for a tight finish in Group D between the Swiss, the Danes and the Irish.
Switzerland will qualify for EURO 2020 if they beat Gibraltar on Monday, though any other result may prove costly. A draw at the Victoria Stadium could see all three teams finish on 15 points, while a defeat for the Swiss could see Denmark and the Republic of Ireland qualify ahead of them if the Irish win.
The Schweizer Nati conclude their qualifying campaign on Monday night, as they travel to winless Gibraltar. The Republic of Ireland host Denmark at the same time in Dublin, as Petković’s side are one step away from qualifying for next summer’s tournament.