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Switzerland legend Frei expects Northern Ireland to fall to defeat by this heavy scoreline

 

By Julian Taylor

He was famous for finding holes like Swiss cheese in opposition rearguards.

Alexander Frei is the hero of Switzerland. And their all-time record sharpshooter is, you could argue, an Alpine David Healy, having bulleted an astonishing 42 goals in 82 international appearances.

Northern Ireland have come a long way in these World Cup qualifiers, earning second place behind Group C winners Germany.

Nevertheless, Michael O'Neill's miserly defence is in for a severe test across the play-offs which will determine who goes to Russia next summer.

Frei is, naturally, intrigued by the draw - but insists his countrymen are, ultimately, far too strong for Northern Ireland for the wraparound clashes.

Switzerland, who qualified for both the last World Cup as well as reaching the last-16 of Euro 2016, remain full of verve. If reports are to be believed, the cowbells are primed for premature ringing.

Vladimir Petkovic's outfit were hugely impressive in their qualifying campaign with nine wins, but a 2-0 defeat against Portugal at the finale deprived them of automatic qualification. There was obvious disappointment and what might have been sentiments in Switzerland at the time, but now the focus is firmly on taking care of Northern Ireland.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph, Frei said: "Everybody was aware that the last game in this group was going to be decisive for the direct qualification. Of course there was a disappointment (against Portugal) because of the nine great games, but this should be ticked off now.

"Despite the defeat to Portugal, the will and faith in qualifying for the World Cup is big.

"Now we play Northern Ireland and this is a country with great fans, a good defence but a feasible opponent. The Swiss team are the favourites for this game."

Swiss football is rising, and these epics will perhaps either maximise or deflate interest around the nation, depending on the result. Frei admits that Petkovic's pragmatism has worked to get this far.

"The whole campaign was a highlight," said Frei, who starred for Borussia Dortmund and Rennes and is now youth coach at FC Basel, where Sunday's second-leg is being played.

"I think not many people believed that this team could actually end up getting 27 points out of nine games.

"His (Petkovic's) teams are always good and well organised. The Switzerland team is not so spectacular in front of goal but they are more concerned about the result. For us, it is a good draw because in general British teams are good to play for Swiss teams, either on the club level or the national team.

"We are thinking now that for Switzerland not to qualify this would be a huge disappointment. I think these will be two great games also due to the fans. The supporters of both countries are peaceful and great."

There is apprehension regarding Northern Ireland's comparatively compressed resources ahead of two monumentally era-defining games in four days. The Swiss, according to Frei, have no such worries.

"The Swiss team will not do any experiments," notes Frei. "The first eleven as usual will play both games. But it is clear that Switzerland has a good bench as well. In fact, Switzerland has 16 to 17 first eleven style players.

"Although the Northern Ireland players are not so well known, apart from (Kyle) Lafferty from his time at Sion, this does not say anything about their quality. They have a very good defence but the weaknesses could have been seen against Germany."

On that basis, Switzerland danger man, Haris Seforovic of Benfica - who netted three goals in the qualifying campaign - may fancy his chances against Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans. More familiar threats to Northern Ireland fans come in the shape of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri of Arsenal and Stoke City, respectively.

Frei added: "We have good organisation and outstanding talents. Xhaka is both the brains and the strategist of Switzerland, Shaqiri provides the entertainment and the spectacle."

Fortunately for the Swiss, David Healy is too old now to feature either in Belfast or at St Jakob-Park - a clear relief.

"Of course I know this player," laughs Frei. "He is the same age as I am. He had a great goal scoring rate and it was really remarkable for a team like Northern Ireland.

"It's going to be a great meeting between the countries, but if I am to make a prediction then I say we will win 2-1 in Northern Ireland and then 3-0 in Switzerland for a total 5-1 score."

Daring Frei seldom missed an opportunity in his playing days. We'll shortly discover if his trademark efficiency remains intact.

Belfast Telegraph

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