Switzerland knew what they were up against in Basel.
Just 81 days had passed since the Schweizer Nati were slain by Italy, who ran riot in Rome en route to winning EURO 2020. The first of two meetings in World Cup qualifying had arrived in what was the toughest possible competitive start for Murat Yakin.
But Yakin had started well in the hotseat, recording his first win over Greece on Wednesday with an unfamiliar squad. The likes of Granit Xhaka, Xherdan Shaqiri and Breel Embolo all ruled out, and half of the Nati’s key players unavailable.
For all the Swiss stars missing, arguably the most important remained.
Yann Sommer secured his place in Swiss football folklore during the EUROs, and there was no better man to wear the captain’s armband in Xhaka’s absence than the Nati’s number one.
While the back three of Manuel Akanji, Nico Elvedi and Ricardo Rodríguez were being run ragged by Italy, it was just another day at the office for Sommer.
Calm, composed and alert in goal, the first test came as Domenico Berardi was one-on-one through a devastating Italian counter attack. Yet Sommer stood strong to deny the forward, celebrated like a goal by the Joggeli faithful.
Another excellent piece of goalkeeping saw the 32-year-old dive out to the edge of his box and stop the cross reaching its target: alert and active as ever.
His crowning moment was yet to come.
Switzerland looked more settled as the second half kicked off, finally looking as if they could pave their way into the game. However, Rodríguez’s rash challenge gifted Italy a penalty and a chance to seize control of the game, to the dismay of the protesting Swiss and agitated fans.
Chelsea’s Jorginho, recently crowned the UEFA Men’s Player of the Year, up against Switzerland’s Sommer.
Fans are now well aware of Jorginho’s “hop, skip, jump” penalty technique, one which has served him well for so long. But as he began to miss more from the spot, he wouldn’t always stick to his trademark, opting for a straightforward smash against tougher goalkeepers like Hugo Lloris.
He ought to have done the same in Basel, but underestimated the Nati number one at his own peril.
All Sommer had to do was wait and make a comfortable save to his left. The penalty king strikes again.
Sergio Ramos, Kylian Mbappé and now Jorginho have all failed to beat Sommer from the spot. It should be no surprise, given that it was his heroics which sent Switzerland into their historic quarter-final this summer. Ever reliable, rarely at fault, always outstanding, Yann Sommer did what Yann Sommer does best.
That should’ve been the goal which settled it, yet the penalty represented Italy’s frustration in front of goal and Switzerland’s strength at the back. Nothing would give in Basel.
In the end, Sommer’s solid display earned Switzerland a hard-fought point, putting in another perfect performance to deny Roberto Mancini’s men.
But it was not just Sommer. Switzerland have gained a reputation for being tough to break down, and although Italy carved them open all night long, the final line of defence never gave way. It was a team performance which secured the result, a marvellous defensive show.
Away from the backline, the midfield had an important role to play in earning the point. Djibril Sow struggled to impose himself on the game but there was no such struggle for Michel Aebischer and Fabian Frei, the latter returning to the Nati for the first time since March 2018.
Frei was superb in the middle of the park, looking so comfortable and experienced for a player who was only drafted in as a late inclusion three days earlier. He deserved the chance to shine in his home stadium, and gives Yakin another strong midfield option.
Switzerland deserved the draw for the way they fought and withheld the Azzurri, but there is work to be done.
The Nati weren’t smooth at all on the transition, lacking the midfield quality to bring the ball forward into the Italian half. Once they got there they were slow and almost lethargic, showing no intent of driving forward and attacking the Italian backline.
There were also a lot of cynical fouls – some necessary, some not – which left four players on yellow cards. That was as a result of poor positioning and making themselves vulnerable on the break, which Italy exploited time and time again.
Then again, it is no surprise that there is room for improvement. Yakin is little under a month into life as Switzerland manager and will need time to work everything out. But for what it’s worth, it’s been an impressive start to the Murat Yakin era.
A solid win against Greece and an impressive point against Italy, holding the European champions to a draw on home soil. Not to mention the exhaustive list of absentees and Yakin can be pleased with his start and what lies ahead.
If there’s anything to take from Sunday, it’s that there is potential in the future for Yakin’s Switzerland.
This remains the most exciting and talented Switzerland squad ever, and Yakin hasn’t even used all his cards yet. He will have time, faith and patience, where we can reflect on his tenure at the end of qualifying.
A draw is often seen as two points lost, but for Switzerland in Basel, it is certainly one point gained.
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