Switzerland fell to defeat in Thursday’s Nations League opener, as they lost 2-1 to Ukraine at the Arena Lviv.
While Switzerland had the early share of possession, it was Ukraine who found themselves closer to opening the scoring. Ruslan Malinovskyi’s long range effort cannoned off the post, with Andriy Yarmolenko smashing his rebound into the side netting.
The Nati’s defence was starting to show signs of vulnerability, and it did not take long for Ukraine to capitalise. Oleksandr Tymchyk’s shot was spilled by Yann Sommer, allowing him to retain the ball and square it to Yarmolenko. With his back turned towards goal, Yarmolenko backheeled it in from close range, drawing first blood for the hosts.
Haris Seferović almost struck back instantly for Switzerland, but his shot was well blocked by Mykola Matviyenko. Steven Zuber then squandered a huge chance in what proved to be a theme of his game, wasting a nicely worked team move by scuffing his tame shot over the bar.
Switzerland eventually equalised out of nothing, thanks to a brilliant strike from none other than Seferović. The striker drove forward through the Ukrainian defence, drilling his shot hard and low into the bottom corner to draw the Swiss level with a superb individual goal just before half-time.
Ruben Vargas was desperately unlucky not to give the Nati the lead after the break, when his header came off the base of the post. Instead, Oleksandr Zinchenko restored Ukraine’s lead with a delightful finish. Without hesitating, he curled it first time into the top corner, giving Sommer no chance and reinstating the hosts’ healthy advantage.
Nati nightmare in lviv
Almost a year after beating Gibraltar to qualify for EURO 2020, Switzerland were raring to go in the Nations League. Ukraine would be no easy challengers – after all, they went the entirety of 2019 without losing a game – yet with upcoming tests against Spain and Germany, Vladimir Petković’s side needed to gain momentum in western Ukraine.
It was hard to crack the code from Petković’s starting eleven, but it was soon clear that there was no change to the back three used during EURO 2020 qualifying. The wing-backs were having starkly contrasting evenings: Kevin Mbabu was flourishing forward with freedom on the right, but Steven Zuber was struggling in his adapted role on the left.
Although Switzerland began brightly and were in control of the ball, their defensive flaws were evident. Ukraine cut through Zuber and Ricardo Rodríguez on the left flank, and as soon as they had found the gap between the defensive duo, it was only going to end one way.
Sommer should have done better in goal, but it was collective mishaps that allowed Yarmolenko to put the hosts in front. It was completely avoidable but an outcome that was bound to happen, as the visitors found themselves behind inside 15 minutes.
The Swiss looked good in attack, spearheaded by the resurgent Breel Embolo and star striker Seferović. It was the latter who got the equaliser, a powerful low drive catching Andriy Pyatov by surprise. It was Seferović’s sixth goal in the Nations League, meaning a third of his 19 international goals have come in the competition.
Granit Xhaka led by example in his first game as official captain, putting in a solid performance at the heart of midfield. Mbabu was very lively and was a breath of fresh air to the Swiss frontline, showing that he is ready to seize his opportunity following Stephan Lichtsteiner’s retirement last month.
But for all of the Nati’s positive impressions in attack, their defending did them no favours. A string of glaring mistakes all night gave the hosts belief, and while Zinchenko’s winner was unstoppable, it seemed inevitable that Ukraine would get the next goal. A back three is not the way forward – and that is not new knowledge.
Switzerland do not look convincing enough with three defenders, far from the days of the defensive masterclasses of the past. Rodríguez is simply not a centre-back, Zuber cannot cover as a full-back; the Swiss must play a back four if they want to succeed in the long term.
In what is Switzerland’s toughest group in any competition for years, it seems an uphill task after losing on matchday one. Germany await in Basel, and with trips to Spain and Germany following next month, the Nati have it all to do in Group 4.
NATI PLAYER RATINGS
Nati Man of the Match: Breel Embolo
(Out of 10)
Yann Sommer: 5
Ricardo Rodríguez: 5
Manuel Akanji: 6
Nico Elvedi: 6
Steven Zuber: 5
Granit Xhaka: 7
Djibril Sow: 6
Kevin Mbabu: 7
Ruben Vargas: 6
Haris Seferović: 7
Breel Embolo: 7
Renato Steffen: 6
Albian Ajeti: 5
Michel Aebischer: 5
After Spain’s late equaliser saw them grab a point against Germany, Switzerland sink straight to the bottom of Group 4. In the other direction, Andriy Shevchenko’s Ukraine go top of the group, an impressive feat after the opening round of fixtures for the Yellow and Blues.
Switzerland are back in action on Sunday, when they welcome Germany across the border to St. Jakob-Park in Basel. Meanwhile, Ukraine are off to the Spanish capital, as they face Spain on the same day at Madrid’s Estadio Alfredo Di Stéfano.
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