Meet the opponents
Switzerland face Northern Ireland in Belfast tonight hoping to gain an advantage in the first leg of the World Cup play-off clash. The Swiss are aiming to reach their fourth successive World Cup finals having been to each edition since last missing out in 2002. Here we run the rule over Vladimir Petkovic’s men.
The Swiss had won all nine of their qualifiers before visiting Portugal in the final group game last month, when a 2-0 win for the Euro 2016 champions ensured they sealed top spot on goal difference. Switzerland exited Euro 2016 at the last-16 round — the same stage as Northern Ireland — though they did not lose a game inside 120 minutes in France, and England are the only other nation to beat them in a competitive fixture since Slovenia defeated them in October 2014.
Switzerland turned to Petkovic when Ottmar Hitzfeld retired after the 2014 World Cup. Petkovic was given a two-year contract extension over the summer thanks to his country’s perfect record in qualification. The Bosnia-born naturalised Swiss won the Coppa Italia with Lazio before taking the job and has previously held top club posts in Switzerland with Sion and Young Boys.
Petkovic is expected to deploy a back four flanked by Serie A full-backs Ricardo Rodriguez and Stephan Lichtsteiner in a system that has fluctuated between 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1, with Haris Seferovic, their top scorer in the group stage with four goals, the central forward. Both Arsenal’s Granit Xhaka and Stoke’s Xherdan Shaqiri are relied upon to provide the creativity in midfield.
The sometimes-maligned Xhaka, who has the most touches in the Premier League this season, is pivotal to his country’s fortunes while Stoke fans know Shaqiri is capable of moments of brilliance. Northern Irish boss Michael O’Neill also needs to worry about Lichtsteiner and Rodriguez, both of whom love to push on but Johan Djourou is injured while ex-West Ham and Watford midfielder Valon Behrami is “highly unlikely” to feature because of a hamstring issue.