Few Swiss players of the modern era are as talented as Xherdan Shaqiri.
Since his Switzerland debut in 2010, the winger has been one of the Schweizer Nati’s star players, first under Ottmar Hitzfeld and now Vladimir Petković.
But since his 2018 World Cup heroics, Shaqiri has failed to find himself in the same limelight. Whether it is his sporadic gametime at Liverpool – who he joined before the conclusion of the tournament – or his unfortunate injury record, Shaqiri has not been the same in recent years.
So, when the 29-year-old was included in the first Nati squad of 2021, he would have seen it as turning a fresh page in his international career.
Having played a starring role in the 3-1 win over Bulgaria midweek, Shaqiri was keen to get off to a quick start against Lithuania on Sunday – even amid the slow start in St. Gallen inflicted by a dodgy goalpost.
If Shaqiri was aiming to be quick out of the blocks, he certainly seized the gold medal.
Inside 88 seconds, Breel Embolo threaded it through to Shaqiri, who instinctively turned and fired it into the bottom corner without hesitation. The quickest Nati goal in 14 years, a goal made in Basel and a first for Shaqiri since the 6-0 thumping of Iceland in September 2018, coincidentally in St. Gallen too – must be something about the kybunpark.
The fact that it was his first goal in two and-a-half years tells the story alone. Shaqiri has struggled so much on the pitch since the World Cup, making it an even sweeter moment.
As the game progressed, we saw more glimpses of the vintage Shaqiri.
Confident on the ball, creating dozens of chances and battling the Lithuanian defence without a care in the world. This was the man feared to have been lost in the Anfield abyss, but all it showed was that he is still there – just hidden away until unleashed.
It was a man of the match performance from the eventual matchwinner, whose numbers spoke for themselves. Alongside his decisive goal, Shaqiri had 74 touches and three key passes, finding himself spread across the pitch in an influential display.
The only criticism is not adding the finishing touches to the result, though that is a team issue rather than an individual one. It was a superb performance from Shaqiri, drawing parallels to the fresh-faced teenager Switzerland came to know and love all those years ago.
Shaqiri’s role in Petković’s current system is perfect. He has the license to roam forward as the number 10, but the new back three makes one key distinction: freedom.
Shaqiri has the space across the final third to dictate the attack, now that the usually present wingers have made way for wider wing-backs. He is the ultimate focal point in behind the strike pairing of Haris Seferović and Breel Embolo, giving him more options and more freedom to express himself as he did in his Basel days.
Having not played a single minute in Switzerland’s successful EURO 2020 qualifying campaign, Shaqiri now has a goal and two assists in two appearances in World Cup qualifying, a welcome return to the national team setup after so long in the pitiful shadows.
The winger’s impact on the Nati is no secret, but above all, it is a joy to see him enjoying his football again. It was natural to fear whether he even had a future in the Nati setup, approaching his 30th birthday and with exciting, young prospects rising through the ranks – namely Noah Okafor and Ruben Vargas, the latter producing a splendid display on Sunday.
Yet, quite simply, no-one can come close to Shaqiri.
He has that special enigma, where Switzerland are a dissimilar team in his absence. Even when he has scored just once this season for Liverpool, featuring in 43% of their games, he is still the key player to turn to when Petković and the country are in need. There is a reason he is adored back home, hailed as the poster boy of Swiss football for over a decade.
Shaqiri’s spot in the EURO 2020 squad was at peril, but after his impact in the latest qualifiers, he has one foot on the plane. Now it is a case of ending the season strong, staying fit and getting as much gametime as possible, remaining in Petković’s considerations in these crucial months of the campaign.
A fitting return to life with the Nati, and proof that Shaqiri is far from finished.
Enjoy my work? Consider donating!
If you like reading my articles, I would greatly appreciate any donations you can afford. Thank you for all of your incredible support!