From the City of Winds to the Eternal City, Switzerland’s EURO 2020 journey rolled on into Rome.
A draw against Wales followed by a stunning Welsh win over Turkey left the Schweizer Nati needing to win at the Stadio Olimpico, or else face potential early elimination at the group stage. Not since 2008 has that happened, but in a tight Group A, they simply could not take any chances.
It would not be an easy task against Italy, the rampant hosts who went into Wednesday’s battle with nine consecutive wins without conceding a single goal. Knowing that a victory over their neighbours would send Roberto Mancini’s side through, the aim was simple for the Azzurri: win.
Coming to the Olimpico to face the Italians was Vladimir Petković’s biggest test of the tournament, back in the city where he managed for Lazio before taking the Swiss reins.
Switzerland did not need to be told of the Italian’s strength and quality – it was shown to them from the first whistle.
It says a lot, that Switzerland’s best spell of the game came in the first 15 minutes, defending well as a back five and looking confident going forward. The warning signs came when Giorgio Chiellini poked home from close range, the Swiss only surviving as the Azzurri captain had handballed it when bringing the ball under control.
Chiellini’s night would only last another five minutes before coming off injured, and that should have opened the floodgates for the Swiss to take advantage of the hosts’ weakened defence.
Instead, it was Italy who seized control of their opponents’ weakness.
Manuel Locatelli drove through the heart of the Nati defence to tap home into an empty net, a play where Switzerland were completely caught cold and punished for their shocking defensive shape.
The wing-backs are a crucial part of Petković’s system, but in Rome on Wednesday night, they were the ones being slain in the Colosseum. Ricardo Rodríguez and Kevin Mbabu could not cope with Italy’s overlapping attacks, time after time being overrun and dominated like they were not even there.
After the break, the Italian onslaught continued with Locatelli once again the orchestrator, adding a superb second by drilling it hard and low into the bottom corner.
By then, Switzerland were down and out. Ciro Immobile’s third was rubbing salt into the Swiss wound, clearing a comfortable path into the round of 16 for Italy while condemning their neighbours to a damning defeat in the Eternal City.
Weak in defence, invisible in midfield and toothless in attack – this is not the Switzerland we know.
It was always going to be difficult against a magnificent Italy side, who produced another statement win on home soil, but the way in which the Swiss faltered was embarrassing beyond belief.
The back three demonstrated every reason why a back three is not the one, being torn to shreds all night long. The basics of defending seemed to be absent, with poor positioning, severe lapses of concentration and no support whatsoever from the wing-backs, who truly had a night to forget.
Yet the blame is not solely on the defence. The midfield of Granit Xhaka and Remo Freuler was non-existent: captain Xhaka started brilliantly then faded out, while his partner Freuler was rarely present whatsoever.
To their credit, the attack pressed well and had moments of promise in the first half. But as the night progressed, they could not string a pass together, barely having a sniff of goal or even forcing the Italian defence to break sweat. Only Breel Embolo played the full 90 minutes, in another blunt attacking display from the Nati’s forward stars.
Wales’ win in Baku and Wednesday’s thrashing at the hands of Italy leaves Switzerland in a dire state, third in Group A with a solitary point after two games.
Now, it all goes down to Sunday. Switzerland have to beat Turkey in Baku, or they will be going home and eliminated from EURO 2020. Ideally, the Nati will win and Italy will ease past Wales, putting them level on points and hopefully causing a goal difference swing big enough to sneak the Swiss into second.
But what looks more likely is Switzerland progressing as one of the best third-place teams, an unattractive route through but a route nonetheless.
When the rule was first introduced at EURO 2016, it meant that every team who finished the group stage with at least four points qualified for the round of 16. Whatever happens in the other groups, a Swiss win and a four-point tally should do the job.
It is not ideal in the slightest to be aiming for third, but beggars cannot be choosers, especially on the continental stage. If anything, it is Switzerland’s own doing that they are in this position, lacklustre against Wales and dreadful in Italy.
So, after months of preparation and weeks of training, it goes down to the final day. It is win or bust, relief or defeat, all or nothing for Switzerland.
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Imperfect defensive display costs Switzerland in EURO 2020 opener
The time is now for Switzerland to show their worth on the continental stage