BELFAST (Reuters) - After winning nine consecutive World Cup qualifying matches and leading their group until the very last game, Switzerland now find themselves back to square one as they face an uncomfortable two-leg playoff against Northern Ireland.
For most of the campaign, Switzerland appeared to be sailing towards the tournament in Russia as they amassed of 27 points - more than France (23), Serbia (21), Poland (25), England (26) and Iceland (22) who all won their respective European groups.
Unfortunately for Vladimir Petkovic’s team, rivals Portugal also kept winning and the Swiss were edged out on goal difference after losing their last group game to the European champions.
That has left them with the unenviable prospect of facing one of Europe’s most awkward and overachieving teams with the first leg in Belfast on Thursday.
Petkovic is unlikely to take comfort from the statistic that no European team has ever failed to qualify for the World Cup after securing 27 points in their group.
“We’re starting again from scratch and we have to try and put ourselves in the right mindset,” said the Bosnia-born coach. “We have a mini-tournament ahead of us and we have to be better than our opponents.”
On paper, Switzerland, aiming to qualify for their fourth successive World Cup, should be far too strong for opponents who last reached the finals in 1986.
All but five of Switzerland’s 23-man squad play in Europe’s so-called big five leagues, including 10 players in Germany’s Bundesliga.
Northern Ireland, on the other hand, have just four in the big five, all in England’s Premier League. Twelve of their players ply their trade in England’s second tier and three in the third tier.
But if Petkovic needs a warning of the dangers that lurk, he need only look next door to neighbours Austria who played with a similarly refined style to the Swiss but were bullied by the more rustic approach of Wales and Ireland in their qualifying group.
“We must not be afraid to go in for challenges,” said Petkovic. “Every time they win a 50-50 ball or we make a bad pass, the fans will celebrate as if it were a goal. Their team did not reach the playoffs by accident.”
His counterpart Michael O‘Neill has made no apologies for his team’s style of play and has a simple recipe for the tie, which will be completed with the second leg in Basel on Sunday.
“It’s important not to concede at home. We are not a team suited to going out and chasing the game,” he said.
“We want to have something to take to Basel with us. The games will be tight and close and we can hopefully go there and play on the counter-attack with something to defend.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern; Editing by Christian Radnedge