No-one could have dreamt of it.
From the moment Switzerland were drawn with France right up to Kylian Mbappé’s decisive penalty, it all seemed too good to be true. But when Yann Sommer saved that penalty, the impossible had become a reality: Switzerland were in the quarter-final.
Monday was an emotional rollercoaster in Bucharest, though such is the demanding nature of tournament football, attention has already turned to the next game in Saint Petersburg.
Spain await the Schweizer Nati in Russia for a place in the semi-final of EURO 2020.
Switzerland and Spain’s tournaments parallel each other almost to precision. Two underwhelming performances to open their group stage campaigns, sitting on the verge of elimination and embarrassment on the European stage.
Then when it mattered, both turning the heat and sealing consecutive wins to reach the round of 16 and eventually the quarter-final. Switzerland have scored three goals in back-to-back games – perhaps they are clinical after all – but it is Spain who have earned the plaudits in front of goal, setting a record by scoring five in consecutive EURO games.
While they may not have the same attacking jewels of yesteryear, Spain are still blessed with talent up top.
Gerard Moreno scored 30 goals for Villarreal, though is yet to open his goalscoring account at these finals, whereas Pedri has been impressive in his debut tournament. Then there is Álvaro Morata, La Roja’s number nine who still has two goals in four appearances despite a bittersweet EURO so far.
There should be no underestimating Spain, not least for their feat of scoring 10 goals in two games. Luis Enrique’s side are in the final eight for a reason, and for a country initially written off for glory, the quiet favourites are closing in on Wembley Way.
As for Switzerland, EURO 2020 is already a success story. After all, reaching a first quarter-final in a major tournament for 67 years, and a first ever in this competition, deserves serious credit.
For Switzerland, expectations were simple. Get out of the group as a minimum, then see where they can go from there. Becoming quarter-finalists was a dream, but this Nati squad dreams big and produces the wildest of dreams possible.
However, there will be one big difference on Friday: no Granit Xhaka.
The Nati captain is suspended for the quarter-final tie, after picking up another yellow card against France. It is a suckerpunch blow for Petković, losing his most valuable player and inspirational captain. Xhaka will no doubt still play his part from the sidelines, but his on-pitch presence will be much missed.
With Xhaka suspended, the chance for Denis Zakaria to make his full EURO debut has arrived. The 24-year-old has had to watch from the bench with Remo Freuler ahead of him, but he is in pole position to replace the captain and start in the heart of midfield.
There is a valid concern over the partnership though.
For a start, Zakaria and Freuler have not started a game together since September 2019 – even that was not as a double midfield pivot. They are certainly Switzerland’s best midfielders behind Xhaka, but how much of a risk will it be to start them together for the first time in a European Championship quarter-final?
Not to mention that they will come up against a superb Spanish midfield: the experience of Sergio Busquets, the tenacity of Pedri, the creativity of Koke.
Switzerland could face an unbalanced midfield, what with the defensive mindset of Zakaria and the attacking prowess of Freuler. Perhaps that click perfectly together, and with Djibril Sow and Edimilson Fernandes unlikely to come in, Petković will have to take a gamble with Zakaria and Freuler.
At the end of the day, it comes down to whether Switzerland can defeat Spain on the day. The Nati only have one win in 22 meetings, but it came on one of the greatest nights in Swiss football. Gelson Fernandes’ goal was enough to give the Swiss a famous 1-0 win at the 2010 World Cup, and that remains their only victory to date.
What is striking is how different the two teams are today. Switzerland’s squad is far stronger than the class of 2010, whereas Spain have declined from the golden generation that won the World Cup. If the Nati beat Spain with a far weaker squad 11 years ago, why can they not beat them on a more equal playing field in 2021?
Above all, Switzerland are full of confidence after beating France – how could they not, taking the world champions right to the death and prevailing. Petković’s men have beaten one of the favourites and strongest squads at the finals, and now they will know that anything is possible.
To even be in a quarter-final is remarkable for Switzerland, sixty-seven years after their last appearance at this stage. But they can go further, making even more history by reaching a first ever semi-final. France could not stop them, so who is to say this special Swiss side cannot take on Spain?
This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be within one game of a semi-final berth at the EUROs. Switzerland do not know when this may happen again – if ever – and they must take the chance by the scruff of its neck.
History has already been written at EURO 2020, but the history book has plenty of pages left to fill.
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