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Team preview: Switzerland

June 4, 2010
Ubha By Ravi Ubha
Special to ESPN.com
(Archive)

Switzerland was drawn in a comfortable qualifying group and duly took advantage, topping Greece to earn a direct berth to the finals in South Africa. That top-of-the-table was no foregone conclusion, though: The squad didn't start off well, blowing a 2-0 lead to tie its opener at Israel, then suffering an embarrassing 2-1 loss -- at home -- to minnow Luxembourg.

The Swiss, one of the youngest teams at the World Cup, will be hard-pressed to reach the round of 16 for the second straight tournament, since two of its group rivals are favorite Spain and Chile, which impressed in South American qualifying.

Coach: Ottmar Hitzfeld

Hitzfeld is one of the most respected managers in world soccer, achieving the rare feat of leading two different teams to Champions League glory: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. In his first international job, Hitzfeld has instilled confidence in the cosmopolitan national side, with Swiss players praising his man management skills.

Trained as a math teacher, Hitzfeld sticks with what he knows and expects disciplined, tight football from his players, and he would never be found without a detailed scouting report on the opponent. He gained fans among Swiss citizens when he cited qualifying for South Africa as the best moment of his career, but he's implored them not to expect too much from the squad despite their successes in qualifying.

Style of play

Largely devoid of highlight-reel players, Switzerland needs every member of its starting 11 to contribute. Alexander Frei and Tranquillo Barnetta could be standouts on the offense, though their tough group opponents mean Switzerland isn't likely to dominate possession. Facing Spain and Chile, perhaps the best strategy is to hit them on the counterattack.

Players to watch

1. Alexander Frei. Without question, the diminutive Frei is Switzerland's talisman. He's the country's all-time leading scorer with 40 goals in 73 games, backing up his international output at club sides Borussia Dortmund and Rennes. When given chances in front of goal, he must be clinical. Frei did recently return from an arm injury, which means he might need to shake off some rust before the Cup begins.

2. Blaise Nkufo. Seattle Sounders followers will be keeping an eye on Nkufo, since Frei's burly strike partner joins the Major League Soccer outfit in July from Dutch champion Twente. But at 35, Nkufo is set to be one of the oldest competitors at the World Cup.

Tranquillo Barnetta. At the age of 25, the Bayer Leverkusen winger has experience in major international finals for Switzerland, having been selected for the Euro 2004 squad. Barnetta made a name for himself at the 2006 World Cup, nominated for the Best Young Player award.

Who's hot

Xherdan Shaqiri. The 18-year-old midfielder, who earned his first cap in March, scored as FC Basel completed the domestic double by claiming the Swiss Cup this month.

Who's not

Philippe Senderos. Hitzfeld vowed to pick only players who were playing regularly for their clubs but countered that in choosing Senderos. The towering defender failed at Arsenal and was shipped on loan to Everton, making only two league appearances all season.

Three key questions

1. How do the Swiss advance to the second round? Switzerland must score goals. In 2006, Switzerland became the first nation to be eliminated from a World Cup without conceding a goal, going 2-1-0 in the group stage. Ukraine topped Switzerland on penalties after another scoreless draw in the round of 16. Despite the impressive defensive record, they managed to score only four times.

Who's the midfield workhorse? Benjamin Huggel, who missed World Cup 2006 due to a six-match ban, will be extremely busy trying to fend off the likes of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Xabi Alonso when Switzerland encounters Spain. It will take an otherworldly performance from the midfielder to keep up with La Roja.

Can a weak reserve squad produce? With a relatively unimpressive bench, it seems unlikely. If a regular gets injured, that's bad news for Hitzfeld. In defense alone, Hitzfeld is without veteran left back Ludovic Magnin, who excelled in Germany, and Johan Djourou, kept out of Arsenal's lineup most of the season with a knee injury.

Projected lineup

G Diego Benaglio, Wolfsburg (Germany)
D Christoph Spycher, Eintracht Frankfurt (Germany)
D Philippe Senderos, Arsenal (England)
D Stephane Grichting, Auxerre (France)
D Stephan Lichtsteiner, Lazio (Italy)
M Benjamin Huggel, FC Basel
M Gokhan Inler, Udinese (Italy)
M Tranquillo Barnetta, Bayer Leverkusen (Germany)
M Valon Behrami, West Ham (England)
F Alexander Frei, FC Basel
F Blaise Nkufo, Seattle Sounders (USA)