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Northern Ireland’s crucial double header with Switzerland may be the closest match to call in the World Cup play-offs. Michael O’Neill’s men have the fortress of Windsor Park and the Green and White Army on their side but this is a Swiss team which won nine of their ten qualification matches, losing out to Portugal on goal difference. The good news is that Switzerland don’t have an obvious star, but under Vladimir Petkovic’s tutelage, the Swiss have a well-drilled and competent squad.
The Borussia Mönchengladbach goalkeeper had to bide his time while the arguably less-talented Monaco’s goalkeeper Diego Benaglio was Swiss No. 1. Yann Sommer is agile, quick and confident. A modern day goalkeeper who is as comfortable away from his line as he is on it. The 34-year-old was bought by the Bundesliga giants from Basel in his native Switzerland to replace Barcelona-bound Marc-Andre ter Stegen in 2014. The goalkeeper even has his own food blog.
The AC Milan defender had the opportunity to play for both Spain (his father) or Chile (his mother) but chooses the country of his birth. Rodriguez has made the left-back spot his own, providing drive from deep, while being strong physically. Playing alongside Juventus’ Stephan Lichtseiner, Rodriguez offers width and power, meaning Michael O’Neill’s will have to switched on to his forward advances. The players scored five goals between themselves in qualifying.
As speculated by some, Xhaka was the answer Arsenal’s midfield crisis. That hasn’t quite turned out that way at the Emirates this season but the Swiss continues to be an important figure in the Swiss midfield, donning the number 10 shirt. Xhaka appears more comfortable playing for Swiss, providing steel but, more than physical strength, the Gunners midfielder offers brains with his creative and intelligent passing from deep, helping his side play through the lines. Xhaka will need to cool his game to prevent him finding gaps behind the Northern Ireland midfield.
One of the most memorable moment during the Euro 2016 was the lilliputian creator’s overhead kick against Poland. Shaqiri is the type of player who can provide a moment of genius out of nothing. The 26-year-old plays from the right-wing. The Stoke City winger is capable of using a piece of skill or his power to go by the full-back down the line but the ex-Bayern Munich winger is most dangerous moving onto his left-foot where he can be more dangerous from around the edge of the box.
20-year-old Breel Embolo is Switzerland’s next great hope. The youngster earned his first-team debut at Basel four weeks after he turned 17 and would go on to register 94 appearances before his big money switch to Schalke 04. It has not gone as planned for Embolo in Germany, notching just 10 games last season for the Bundesliga side before an injury ended his season in October. However, Embolo who stands 185cm returned to fitness and brings an extra dimension to the Swiss attack. Embolo could prove to be a wildcard from the bench against the ageing legs of Aaron Hughes and Gareth McAuley.