For the third time in 2021, Switzerland faced the mighty Italy.
So far, the Schweizer Nati had been thumped at EURO 2020 en route to the Italians winning the competition, before holding them to a goalless draw in Basel two months ago.
One draw and loss was their record, so could the Swiss complete the set when they returned to the Stadio Olimpico?
For a long time, that looked to be the case. To everyone’s amazement, Switzerland came fastest out of the blocks and went straight for Italy’s throats, something no-one had done since England in the EURO 2020 final. Fast-paced, attacking football that any team would dream of playing, as the fearless Nati went all out.
Murat Yakin had elected for a blend of youth and experience in attack, with captain Xherdan Shaqiri supporting Ruben Vargas and Noah Okafor, who made his full Nati debut in Rome. The quick start paid off when Switzerland took an emphatic lead inside 11 minutes, and it was Okafor the orchestrator who took advantage.
Pulling out wide, Okafor came at Giovanni Di Lorenzo and drove forward into the box, before pulling it back to the onrushing Silvan Widmer. Hitting it to absolute perfection with power, purpose and precision, it flew into the net and through the flailing Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Switzerland had done what no team yet had done in World Cup qualifying: taken the lead against Italy.
The momentum was in Yakin’s hands, and the confidence too, as Switzerland did not hold back and went on for more. That was helped by the energy and dynamism of Okafor and Vargas, two Swiss starlets excelling in the opportunity surfaced as a result of the injury crisis.
The pair have already been touted as the future of the Nati, and while Vargas has been seeing the opportunities come thick and fast, Okafor has had to wait patiently while sticking it out in the under-21 squad. The best thing about young players is that they play without fear or hesitation: just pure football, playing as if there is no tomorrow.
Vargas was having a field day on the left wing, toying with the Italian defence and putting on a show for the Roman onlookers. He created chance after chance and drove forward with real intent and purpose, continuing to establish himself in the Nati-A and proving why he deserves his spot.
Then there was Okafor, playing on the last line with the confidence and fearlessness we have not seen so often. Seferovic could hardly lay a finger on the Italian centre-backs in September’s meeting, but the RB Salzburg forward was proving to be a problem as he pressed high and came right at Leonardo Bonucci and Francesco Acerbi.
There was no time to hold out for the win, but right as Switzerland were pushing for a second, Italy finally woke up and decided to play football.
It was now end-to-end stuff at the Olimpico and the Azzurri desperately wanted that goal. Lorenzo Insigne thought he had done exactly that when he had an open goal at point-blank age: enter Yann Sommer, Switzerland’s saviour pulling through with an incredible close-range save to preserve the visitors’ lead.
Switzerland continued their pursuit of a two-goal cushion, now in the shadow of a simultaneous Italian mission. In the return fixture at St. Jakob-Park, the Swiss were up against the wall and relying on their defensive credentials to get the result. Now, they were playing fearless, attacking football, the new brand of the national team under Yakin.
The equaliser came in frustrating fashion. An intelligent set-piece caught out the Swiss defence and, most crucially, Sommer, who came for and missed the ball with his half-hearted punch. Di Lorenzo got there ahead of him and knocked it home to make it all square in Rome to the joy of the Olimpico faithful.
It looked to be heading for a stalemate, until Ulisses Garcia’s daft challenge on Domenico Berardi saw VAR award Italy a penalty. As the clock ticked towards 90 minutes, Jorginho stepped up against Yann Sommer – where have we heard that before?
Last time out, Sommer deciphered the Chelsea man’s penalty technique and saved his spot kick, seeming to go one way before going the other. He had the mental advantage again on Friday and knew exactly what Jorginho was going to do.
But this time, Switzerland did not need Sommer to come to the rescue. Rather than remaining composed and rolling the ball home, Jorginho hopped, skipped and blazed his effort into the heavens, nowhere near on target and not even concerning Sommer.
Switzerland had dodged a fatal bullet. They lived to fight another day.
That penalty would have all but settled Group C, but instead it goes down to the final day. Going into the last day next Monday, Italy and Switzerland are level on points, only separated by a goal difference of two. But should they be tied on points, goal difference and goals scored, the Swiss have the upper hand due to having more away goals in head-to-head encounters.
The Nati host Bulgaria in Luzern, while Italy must travel to Northern Ireland and win to secure top spot. For Switzerland, they must better Italy’s results or hope that, if they both win, they have matched or bettered their goal stats to book their spot in Qatar.
When the draw for World Cup qualifying was made almost a year ago, the widespread consensus was that it would be a comfortable first-place for Italy and Switzerland earning second.
But as we go into matchday eight, it is remarkable that the Swiss are still in contention to win their group for the third time this century. Amid a managerial change and a continual injury crisis, the Nati’s chances of automatic qualification remain alive and well.
It all comes down to Monday, and while the game in Belfast is out of their hands, Switzerland will do what they can and hope for the best.
It goes down to the wire.
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