Thursday 21 November 2019

Aidan Fitzmaurice: 'Cracks in the Swiss facade give Irish hope of shock'

Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic during a Switzerland press conference at Stade de Genève in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Switzerland manager Vladimir Petkovic during a Switzerland press conference at Stade de Genève in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Aidan Fitzmaurice in Geneva

A peace-loving nation with their backs to the wall – do they come out fighting or limp away from the battle? That’s the dilemma facing Switzerland tonight.

Ireland have a way to get to Euro 2020, no matter what happens in Geneva.

If Ireland lose tonight, they can still qualify.

It’s not that simple for the Swiss: draw and they need favours; lose and they are done (unless Denmark lose to Gibraltar), missing out on a major finals for the first time in four attempts.

Of course, for the Irish side to give their travelling supporters a reason to celebrate in this eye-wateringly expensive city they need a win against a top-ranked side, and those victories have been hard to come by for Ireland of late.

But there are still enough cracks in the Swiss facade to give Ireland hope that if they can somehow summon up the guile, skill and nous (which were all missing in Tbilisi on Saturday), the Swiss are there to be beaten.

Their manager has already been beaten up by the Swiss media.

Vladimir Petkovic, the German-speaking, Sarajevo-born coach of the Swiss side, will not have enjoyed reading the local press yesterday as they reacted to Saturday’s loss in Denmark and he seemed to resent questions about his own future at yesterday’s pre-match press conference.

If they could bridge the language barrier between them, he could sit down for a coffee and agree with Mick McCarthy on his comments about the “peddlars of doom” in the Irish media who were on his case after the 0-0 draw in Tbilisi.

The headlines all turned on the manager: ‘Switzerland and Petkovic face their destiny’; ‘The Swiss team alone have their backs to the wall’; ‘Petkovic and the question of where the problem begins’.

Local media analysis references a communication problem, an inability to grind out results and the failure to hold on to a lead.

Just as an absent player (Roy Keane) dogged McCarthy at the end of his first spell as Ireland manager, it’s the absence of one man (Xherdan Shaqiri) which plagues Petkovic.

Local experts here convinced that, although the Liverpool player is carrying an injury, it’s his poor relationship with Petkovic which prevents him from playing for the national team.

Every aspect of Switzerland’s game has been picked over since the loss to Denmark at the weekend, a defeat which exposed flaws already there.

The goals which once flowed so freely have dried up; the Swiss scored five times in their first two qualifiers this year, but besides a facile 4-0 win over Gibraltar, they have since scored just twice in four games.

Haris Seferovic, the current squad’s leading scorer (17 goals), hasn’t found the net for the national team in a year.

They concede, and concede late – 10 of the last 13 goals they have let in were scored in the final 10 minutes.

And tonight they come up against an Irish side whose forte is a late, late show. Of the six goals scored by the Republic in six games to date, 50 per cent have come in the last five minutes.

There, that’s how Ireland can get a win in Geneva. It’s a risky strategy, to play out the bulk of the game in an attempt to wear down an opponent, which is more gifted, and then hit them with a late surge.

McCarthy’s team selection will give a hint of his game plan. If Josh Cullen is chanced to start, Ireland will try to pass their way to a win.

Stick with essentially the same side which drew in Tbilisi and it will be a gruelling battle of brawn, not brains.

The other factor on Ireland’s side is the stage. The Stade de Genève is home for the Swiss side tonight, but it’s not always been a happy one.

And the city has not been doused in football fever in the last few days. Swiss enthusiasm possibly muted by Saturday’s 1-0 loss in Copenhagen.

The only evidence that the city is hosting a big game is the sight of green-clad Ireland supporters ambling about the town, wondering whether it’s just their imagination but that the price of a pint is getting dearer the closer they get to the city centre.

Geneva is a city awash with money, the polar opposite of a football-obsessed town like Istanbul or Munich or Glasgow. City stores boast Manolo Blahnik shoes in the window (for just shy of €1,000) but the bars and cafés are bereft of the posters, scarves and calendars from the local side (Servette Geneva in this case) that you’d expect to see in a city proud of its club.

Geneva has greeted the arrival of the Green Army, and this game, with a massive shrug of indifference. Even with a small capacity of 26,000, the ground is not sold out.

As a football nation, they are as close to turmoil as you can get. The team, and highly-paid coach, are under fierce pressure and Ireland may, just, have more of a stomach for a fight.

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