2020 was a year to forget for all, not least for Switzerland.
The Schweizer Nati ended last year with just one win in eight games, which itself had come as a result of a COVID-inflicted 3-0 forfeit. Last year was simply not good enough, and if they wanted to rise from 16th in the world rankings, they had to start 2021 in far greater fashion.
Vladimir Petković’s key focus for the year ahead is EURO 2020, but attention turned to the World Cup qualifiers on Thursday, as Switzerland travelled to Sofia to face Bulgaria.
Switzerland’s lineup bore a familiar combination of names, yet an unchanged formation. Despite not winning a single regular game when playing a back three last year, Petković persisted with the setup, as Ricardo Rodríguez slotted back into his new role.
It would be the makeshift centre-back who would assist the opener, floating a delightful cross into the box for Breel Embolo to head home. A long overdue Nati goal for the injury-ravaged 24-year-old, whose last one came almost two years ago to the day.
The Nati’s quick start would soon become rapid, with Haris Seferović getting in on the action. A convincing finish past goalkeeper Plamen Iliev gave Seferović his 20th Swiss goal, and an excellent goal apiece for the strike partnership.
Were Switzerland finished? Were they ever.
Bulgaria could not cope with Switzerland’s quick, intelligent football, and it was not long before Xherdan Shaqiri found himself in acres of space outwide. The Liverpool outcast hit his shot across the box, squirming under Iliev and goalbound before Steven Zuber made sure of it on the goalline, thumping it home.
Three-nil in just 12 minutes, a record start in the history of the Swiss national team. For a team who have lacked such a cutting edge for years, this was nothing short of ruthless.
The job was pretty much done, and from then on, it was a case of calmness and professionalism before the flight back to Zürich.
Switzerland looked at ease with a back three for the first time in recent memory, though truthfully, the hosts barely offered a chance to prove themselves. The Swiss were in cruise control, sitting on a comfortable lead and playing as if it were an exhibition match.
Bulgaria did up their game after the break, earning a consolation goal through Kiril Despodov inside the first minute. Perhaps momentarily uncomfortable for the Swiss, but they soon crushed any hopes of a comeback to see out the win.
Bar the hosts’ goal – which arose due to Remo Freuler’s lazy pass – there was little to fault for Switzerland.
For years, the Schweizer Nati have held themselves back in being wasteful in front of goal, blowing chances galore and being left to rue their missed opportunities.
But there was no such situation in Sofia, as Petković’s side were potent with their well-worked chances. It was a relief to see Switzerland merciless in the final third, something which has been sporadic since the days of Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Although the back three cannot be the long-term solution, it did the job on Thursday, with Zuber and Kevin Mbabu putting in solid shifts on their respective flanks. The midfield anchor of Granit Xhaka and Freuler was also impressive, dictating the tempo and being the starting point of every meaningful attack.
But it when it comes to standout performances, the plaudits go to Shaqiri.
For the man who has only started 17% (seven) of Liverpool’s games this season with one solitary goal, he still manages to put in vintage performances upon return to the national team. His spot has been in jeopardy given his lack of club gametime, but if the 29-year-old can perform like that, there will undoubtedly be a place for him on the plane.
Two assists on the night were a superb contribution from Shaqiri, flourishing in the number 10 role in behind the strikers. He was back to his best in Nati red, 11 years on from his debut as a fresh-faced youngster. Like dialling back the years to his prime, Shaqiri was a joy to watch in Bulgaria, proving that he has still got it.
Switzerland head back home content with their performance, ending a dreadful run of results while well and truly putting 2020 behind them. They go top of Group C ahead of Sunday’s clash with Lithuania in St. Gallen, where they will look to make it two wins from two.
What we saw in Sofia was what Switzerland are capable of: a complete, ruthless performance, dominating possession and making difficult trips look standard. It is the perfect start to a new year, one which the Nati will hope is filled with success and glory.
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